After 20 years at the helm of Boston, Tom Menino left an impressive legacy. Nothing, however, meant more to him than improvements to the Boston Public Schools. His legacy: lower dropout rates, higher standardized test scores, even the controversial extended school day.
When Mayor Menino gave his State of the City speech in 1996, he chose an unusual location: the Jeremiah Burke High School, which was failing. It had just lost its accreditation. He pledged to bring it back up to standards.
“I expect you to hold me accountable to what I have said tonight. If I fail to bring about these specific reforms, then judge me harshly,” he said during his speech.
It was one of the most memorable moments in Menino’s entire mayoralty.
Roger Harris runs the Boston Renaissance Charter School. He worked in the Boston Public Schools long before Menino took office in 1993. And he remembers how Menino invested in the Burke school facilities and academic programs. The school earned back its accreditation in 1998.
“He did something no other mayor had done before. He aligned himself with the public schools," Harris said. “He wanted the Burke to be his symbol of restoration and mayors in the past had stepped away from public schools. They didn’t want to be associated with the public schools.”
Even the Renaissance School’s playground is a visual example of Menino’s work. Laura Perille is a Boston Public Schools parent and president of the education nonprofit EdVestors.
“He was an advocate for school yards and oversaw the refurbishment of dozens of asphalt lots in elementary schools across the city into engaging playgrounds for learning as well as activity," she said. “He was really an advocate for youth and broadly understood that it was more than just the schools. So he was a champion for out of school time, for after school time.”
And Menino’s success is measurable.
“In 2002, only 35 percent of our 10th graders were proficient in literacy and math. Just 10 years later three-quarters were proficient or advanced. And that’s amazing progress for an urban school district outpacing many other urban districts," Perille said. "Are we everywhere we need to be? Absolutely not. Do we have a long way to go? Absolutely. And I think Mayor Menino would be the first to say we’re not finished.”
Even though his leadership also brought about reduced drop-out rates in high school, kindergarten for all 5-year-olds, and extended school days, he certainly had his critics. Most recently, Kim Janey, a parent and director at Massachusetts Advocates for Children, disagreed with Menino about new methods of assigning students to schools.
“The mayor’s belief was that the assignment process should be changed and that more parents would choose the schools if there were a different assignment process. And while I think the assignment process was very problematic, I think the deeper issue was the quality of the schools and I think more families would choose Boston Public Schools if the schools were better,” Janey said.
And school buildings are still deteriorating. There are also significant gaps in achievement, which coincide with income and race. Janey said Menino acknowledged all of that, and that no one can question his commitment, and his interest in personal stories.
“I can remember going into meetings with the mayor, maybe bringing a parent group or young people to advocate on a particular issue and how charming the mayor was and how we always had to do some prep work ahead of time so that we knew we could get our point across and we wouldn’t just be charmed.”
He certainly had that effect on people. Paul Grogan is president of The Boston Foundation. He was most recently working with Menino on getting Boston Public School graduates to finish college.
“No mayor in the country has taken responsibility for college results. It’s really quite extraordinary for a mayor to do that when he doesn’t have any real involvement in higher education. And yet that’s what he did. He got us all committed to a goal of reaching a 70 percent graduation rate and we’re making progress. We’re at 49 percent now.”
Menino was persistent – some said stubborn – about his initiatives. But his warmth was always obvious when he visited schools, when he made appearances with his grandchildren. Here’s one of the last things he said about the students in the Boston Public Schools:
“Those kids you talk to in the classrooms are some of the smartest son of a guns in the world. They taught me a lot in my career and I remember when I first got elected – I come from Hyde Park, a very stable home – and they taught me all about guns and drugs. I learned a lot from those kids. We underestimate those kids.”