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Yvonne Abraham

A legacy of excellence

How do you turn an abandoned school in a crime-ridden neighborhood into a gleaming beacon drawing children and grateful parents from across the city?

Margarita Muñiz never seemed to doubt that a school where students are taught in Spanish and English could work.
Margarita Muñiz never seemed to doubt that a school where students are taught in Spanish and English could work.(xx)

The answer is Margarita Muñiz.

The principal of the Rafael Hernandez School could make anything happen.

“She was the toughest lady I have ever known,’’ said Linda Nathan, headmaster of Boston Arts Academy, for whom Muñiz was a mentor. “She never took no for an answer.’’

In her 30 years leading Hernandez, Muñiz never seemed to doubt that a school where Latino and other students are taught in both Spanish and English could work brilliantly. She demanded enormous effort from teachers, parents, and kids to make it so, convinced the school could work only if everyone in the building learned every day. And she threw her most valuable resource — her formidable will — behind them all.

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If the school department threatened to cut her budget too deeply, Muñiz would march downtown to make her case, or to school committee meetings, accompanied by an army of parents long-accustomed to answering her calls.

Over the years, she collected legions of grateful devotees, especially the small kind. They paraded proudly into her office with their projects and essays. Muñiz pored over every one of them, dispensing stars and gifts and hugs. She lived for their success.

The school was her life, and her family. An only child, she was evacuated from Cuba in the early 1960s and grew up in an orphanage in Louisiana. She reunited with her parents when she was a student at Boston College.

In 1981, nine years after she began her first job as an ESL teacher at the Agassiz School in Jamaica Plain, she became founding principal of Hernandez — one of the first dual language schools in the country. By the late 1980s, her ambitions had outgrown the elementary school’s Columbia Road building. She wanted to expand, to the eighth grade.

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Meg Campbell, founder and executive director of the Codman Academy Charter School, had two daughters at Hernandez at the time and helped search for a new building. She remembers the first visit to a rundown, graffiti-filled building in a then-sketchy Egleston Square.

“I don’t know if I can persuade people to come here,’’ Campbell recalled saying.

“They will come,’’ Muñiz told her.

And they did. Great schools can transform neighborhoods, and Hernandez became an anchor for the community — with a little nudging from Muñiz. Worried about the crime rate in the square, and working with a priest at a nearby church, Muñiz made a creative, not quite official, deal with local toughs: If they left the school alone, they could play ball in the gym after hours. They left the school alone.

Year after year, students have emerged from the Hernandez fluent in two languages and successful academically, many exam-school material. Parents clamor for this, making it one of the most-desired schools in the city: Last year, 421 parents put the Hernandez in their top three choices in the school assignment process, competing for 50 seats.

Parents and colleagues came to depend on Muñiz, and not just at school. Nathan could not throw a party without Muñiz’s help: The principal always arrived early and, after pinpointing the problems — “You can’t cut vegetables like that!’’ — she got to work, making everything perfect.

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Teachers stayed at the Hernandez. Ken Larson, Muñiz’s assistant principal, had been at the school since 1985, and the two became best friends. Three years ago, Muñiz learned she had cancer, and Larson was her rock. Doctors told her she had six months, and so the two friends traveled the world with tremendous urgency. Together, they saw Cuba, Peru, the Galapagos, Norway, and more.

Around the same time, Campbell and Diana Lam, another charter school principal whose child Muñiz had educated, told her they wanted to create a high school modeled on Hernandez, and to name it after her.

Muñiz was honored, and thrilled to help with the planning. But by a few weeks ago, it was clear that she would not see it open. Her condition had worsened, and doctors were unable to do anything more for her. Larson, steadfast as always, was arranging for hospice care. The Hernandez community braced itself for awful news.

On Tuesday morning, that news came, but it wasn’t what anybody was expecting. Shockingly, Larson had died, in his sleep. Grief counselors arrived at Hernandez to comfort reeling teachers and children. Shaken, Campbell and Lam brought a distraught Muñiz home from the hospital.

That evening, the Margarita Muñiz Academy was approved at a school committee meeting. The dual-language high school will be housed in the old Agassiz school, where Muñiz began the career that changed the course of thousands of lives.

Lam and Campbell went to Muñiz’s house to deliver the news. A bottle of Muñiz’s favorite Prosecco (Larson had told Lam which one to buy) went unopened. But Muñiz was pleased about the school, Lam said. Standing in her kitchen that night, she managed a smile.

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Muñiz, 60, slipped away at 3:30 on Friday morning.

And for the second time in four days, grief counselors arrived at a heartsick Hernandez.

A wake will be held for Muniz at Mann and Rodgers Funeral Home, 44 Perkins St., Jamaica Plain on Tuesday evening, Nov. 22 from 4 to 6 p.m. A Mass will be said for her the following afternoon, at 2 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 23rd at the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, 1545 Tremont St. on Mission Hill. Burial will be on Friday morning, Nov. 25th at 10 a.m. at the Belmont Cemetery.


Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com.