In 1639, less than a decade after Boston was settled, a teacher and six young students gathered in a one-room schoolhouse in Dorchester, a school that would come to be known as the Mather.
On Wednesday, the Mather Elementary School celebrated its 375th anniversary, a historic milestone for what is billed as the country’s first public elementary school.
At a nostalgic, poignant ceremony in the school’s auditorium, graduates reminisced over childhood days, and city leaders praised the Mather as an exemplar of public education that had helped generations on the path to a productive life.
“It is more than an institution,” said Linda Dorcena Forry, a state senator. “It is an idea.”
The birthday celebration drew an array of political leaders, and Mayor Martin J. Walsh proclaimed the day Mather Elementary School Day. Even the White House sent congratulations.
“The Mather School makes us all so proud to be from Boston,” Walsh said.
While other schools claim to be older, the Mather is considered the first elementary school to be funded by taxes, a breakthrough for public education.
“This is big stuff,” said John McDonough, interim superintendent of the Boston Public Schools. “And it started here.”
The school, eventually named for Puritan clergyman Richard Mather, marked a commitment to a “free and public education for every child,” McDonough said, and has stood as a “promise and obligation” to generations.
William Bratton, New York City’s police commissioner, attended the Mather in the 1950s, and on Wednesday he returned to the auditorium stage for the first time since graduating from sixth grade.
“It all began here at the Mather School,” he said. “So many memories.”
Bratton said he remembered his time at the Mather fondly, saying it laid the foundation for future success. He remembered bringing his metal lunchbox every day, and a Thermos to keep his milk cold.
“I was very fussy, even then,” he said to laughter.
The ceremony also included a tribute to Marie Conley, a crossing guard who was killed in 2008 outside the Mather School. Conley shielded a 10-year-old boy as a car sped toward her.
“She gave her life to protect a child from harm,” Walsh said. Conley knew all the students by name, he recalled, and watched over them with care.
Conley’s family attended the ceremony and received a standing ovation.
Later, students lined up on stage, holding signs that listed major moments in the history of the Parish Street school.
In 1784 the first girls were admitted, a milestone that drew cheers from the girls in the crowd. In 1974, a court ruling desegregated Boston public schools, drawing more applause.
“Here’s to 375 more years,” Forry said.