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The Boston Globe OnlineBoston.com
Boston Globe Online / Giving

Business partnership yields major gains for Boston schools

By Anand Vaishnav, Globe Staff, 11/18/2001

    Change of heart
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To understand how low things got between the Boston public schools and the local business community flash back to 1988, when corporate leaders at first refused to renew the education-business partnership known as the Boston Compact. They wanted the school system to start showing results, they said, and they wanted them now.

Fast forward to 2001. An array of corporate partners, from FleetBoston Financial to Verizon, have added their financial muscle to a $23 million partnership to expand not just any academic offering in Boston, but a very specific one: after-school programs. And the nonprofit Boston Plan for Excellence, whose efforts to improve schools were bolstered by matching donations from city businesses, is continuing its reform work.

What happened between 1988 and 2001 is a story not just about how an urban public school system embarked on the glacial pace of turning around, but about how corporate giving found a unified goal in improving public education by working alongside the school district. The most recent symbol of this is the $23 million After-School For All Partnership, which will add 5,000 seats to serve children of working parents between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. in Boston schools and community organizations. That brings the total number of slots in after-school initiatives to 22,400.

That such well-financed partnerships could happen in the ''Balkans of Boston,'' as Boston Private Industry Council executive director Neil Sullivan put it, is testament to both the commitment of the corporate community and the magnitude of the work ahead.

''There is an active, not a passive, relationship between the city's business community and its public schools,'' Sullivan said. ''And beyond Route 128, it's the envy of the nation.''

It was not always so. Only in the past five to seven years has the betterment of the Boston public schools been a theme around which business leaders rallied with promises of money.

That's not to say businesses ignored the Boston public schools - the signing of the first Boston Compact in 1982 committed businesses to offering summer jobs to the school district. Even in 1988, when businesses' involvement seemed imperiled, leaders eventually signed it. And in 1984, on its 200th anniversary, Bank of Boston established an endowment to finance the Boston Plan for Excellence to help generate reform in the city's 130 schools.

But that generosity was not systemic. Businesses generally stayed away from the public schools from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, a time of several superintendent changes, a bickering School Committee, a soaring dropout rate, bottom-dwelling test scores, and crumbling facilities.

By 1995, though, things started to change. A highly respected superintendent, Thomas W. Payzant, took over the school district. A new mayor, Thomas M. Menino, had staked his legacy on improving the schools. And the business community, prodded by Payzant, Menino, and former John Hancock chairman William Boyan, began to respond.

The biggest symbol of the new atmosphere was a $10 million grant from the Annenberg Foundation in 1996 to support teacher training and development. The money was contingent upon matching funds by the business community and the city. In fact, businesses - Hancock, Harcourt General, Fleet Bank, and others - donated $15 million. Local and state agencies gave another $10 million, producing a $35 million effort that continues.

Sullivan, former chief policy adviser to former Mayor Raymond L. Flynn, credited Boyan, Payzant, and Menino.

School district insiders and outsiders regard the corporate giving that guaranteed the Annenberg money as a turning point in relations between businesses and the Boston public schools.

''It was a new superintendent, a new opportunity for starting over,'' said Ellen Guiney, executive director of the Boston Plan for Excellence. ''Things had been sleepy under [former superintendent] Lois Harrison-Jones, and business support was sort of waning. This really gave it a shot in the arm.''

So when former venture capitalist Christopher Gabrieli began approaching donors in 2001 to finance a massive push for after-school programs, the precedent for a public-private partnership already had been set to some degree. The After-School For All Partnership ended up raising $23 million, not only from corporate players but from Harvard University, United Way of Massachusetts Bay, and the city.

''I think people want to make a difference in public schools and like the fact that it's a systemic effort, rather than these kinds of things where businesses adopt a school. I don't mean to knock that, but so many people want to understand, `Can we actually shift a whole system?''' said Gabrieli, who sits on the board of the Boston Plan for Excellence.

Do the millions in corporate giving actually improve education? An independent review of schools involved with the Boston Plan for Excellence showed that most had made gains on the Stanford 9 exam, a standardized test. But Sullivan said some of the corporate giving isn't as obvious, such as the money set aside for summer jobs. And corporations help finance the ACCESS Scholarship program, an affiliate of the Boston Plan.

It's always risky to predict whether corporate giving for Boston public schools will remain at such high levels in the future - as Gabrieli pointed out, the next mayor might have different priorities than the Boston schools. But as a whole, organizations such as the After-School For All Partnership and the Boston Plan have institutionalized corporate giving in city education circles.

''We've really got to focus and coordinate, because there isn't any urban district in the country that has educated every kid and is putting all the pieces together - after school, special schools for kids that can't learn in the regular way,'' Guiney said.

''Potentially, Boston could put them all together.''

This story ran on page F4 of the Boston Globe on 11/18/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.