Education Reform: Editorials

Our Future Is in Our Schools

By Thomas M. Menino

Thomas M. Menino is the Mayor of Boston, first elected in 1993 and then again in 1997 and 2001. Prior to becoming Mayor, he spent nine years as a District City Councilor from Boston's Hyde Park neighborhood.

How we educate our children determines our viability as a city and nation in the future. I see education as the "hub of the wheel" that makes a city. For too long, many leaders in Boston did not recognize the vital importance of a good public school system in preparing the workforce of tomorrow. A strong public school system also attracts large businesses looking for a place to locate, and homeowners looking for a neighborhood to call home. After six years of a genuine reform effort, the Boston Public Schools have made significant progress toward systemwide excellence to ensure a strong future for Boston.

For too long, finger pointing and politics led to a lack of accountability in the Boston Public Schools. Years of improper management and inadequate resources created twenty-five years of decay for our school system. In 1993, when I became mayor, the decline of our schools was in a freefall. Boston realized the low point of that neglect when one of our high schools lost its accreditationa situation that had been evolving with the knowledge of the school committee and school department since 1988. I did not understand how leaders could allow the schools to reach such a point.

Against the advice of many people, I asked to be held accountable for the schools and the effort to reform them. Reforming our schools needed leadership and focus. Leadership starts at the top. I remembered the words of Harry Truman, "the buck stops here." No phrase could be more fitting for what was needed for our schools.

A genuine school reform effort is something that a mayor could never accomplish alone. The progress we have made to date is attributed to the focused direction of many. With the appointed school committee, we put politics aside and rolled up our sleeves. Our search for a nationally respected Superintendent to implement reform resulted in Dr. Thomas W. Payzant coming to Boston. Dr. Payzant came to us with a national reputation for driving genuine reform at the elementary and secondary levels, and we are indeed fortunate to have such an experienced educational leader here in Boston. Superintendent Payzant has worked with the Boston School Committee, the Boston Teachers Union, principals, headmasters, parents, and other educational professionals to create the roadmap that has helped us get to where we are today. The roadmap is the reform plan called Focus On Children, now in its sixth year.

With the opportunity for true reform now in place, we needed to ensure that adequate resources were available to the School Committee and the Superintendent to make this effort successful. After years of neglect, we substantially increased funding to implement reform and improve facilities. We have spent nearly $300 million to build new schools and renovate others into state-of- the-art facilities. We built three new early learning centers (the first schools built in Boston in 20 years), and three new schools are now under construction. In addition, eleven pilot schools have been opened in renovated spaces. Five existing high schools have been completely overhauled to meet accreditation standards, and over 80 schools have received substantial repairs. All the new facilities advance the school choice options available to families and the academic goals of creating smaller class sizes for students.

Our funding has helped provide additional classroom resources so students now have enough textbooks and materials. Funding has also significantly reduced the student-teacher ratio in each classroom, and "teacher coaching," the professional development program in Boston, is leading the nation on improving classroom instruction. The combination of facilities upgrades, rigorous instruction with systemwide standards and curriculum, new texts and materials, improved school climate, and better classroom instruction has moved the Boston Public Schools forward under the Focus On Children plan. The freefall has stopped.

Support for reform came in other forms. We brought our schools into the 21st century with our Kids Compute 2001 Initiative. Students should graduate with some level of proficiency in technology in order to be competitive in the workplace. The initiative made Boston the first school system to be fully networked to the Internet, so that technology is now part of the classroom experience. The initiative also reduced the computer to student ratio from 1:63 in 1996 to 1:5 in 2001.

I believe that learning does not just happen during the school day, but also before and after school and on weekends. With that in mind, we created the Boston 2:00-to-6:00 After School Initiative to expand after school opportunities. Today, schools as well as community-based organizations run programs in 68 elementary and middle schools to continue the educational experience beyond the traditional school day. The learning experience has also been enhanced in our schoolyards through our Boston Schoolyards Initiative, which rehabilitated over 40 of the dilapidated, outdated schoolyards across the city. Another 60 are in the pipeline for renovation. All of these initiatives have enhanced the learning environment for students.

The progress on school reform under Focus On Children has been recognized by national organizations such as the Annenberg Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the National Science Foundation. The recognition gained from these organizations is an important validation of the work we are doing for our schools. These organizations follow school reform nationally, so for them to distinguish Boston means a lot. Unfortunately, our progress is not always well recognized locally. We must increase local recognition of our work to improve confidence in our schools.

Education is something I have championed since my days on the Boston City Council. I have raised the profile of education nationally as co-chair of the Education Committee for the U.S. Conference of Mayors and will continue to do so as the President of the Conference, starting in June. The schools are the priority for my administration not just because the issue is important to me, but because it is necessary. As Mayor, my goal is to leave the city a better place than I found it. The best way I can ensure the city will remain strong and vibrant in the future is by creating a school system that works. I want to make sure parents have a school in which their children can receive a solid academic foundation for the future. We still have work to do to reform our schools, but the mechanisms are in place to continue progress. The unified efforts of my office, the School Committee, the School Department, the Boston Teachers Union, school administrators, the business community, parents, community leaders, and organizations will ensure that the mission of Focus On Childrencreating systemwide excellenceis accomplished. A strong school system is the "hub of the wheel" for making a city work.

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