Boston charities set ambitious education goals

When the kindergarten and first-grade chorus members from the Haynes Early Education Center in Roxbury closed the program with an uplifting rendition of “We Are The World,” they might as well have been referring to the assembly of Boston bigwigs crowding the stage behind them. By the time the young singers put a coda on the mid-June announcement of a new $27 million education initiative, it seemed every major foundation and education leader in the city had been called onto the stage at the Frederick Middle School in Dorchester to join Mayor Tom Menino and Boston Public Schools Super­intendent Carol Johnson.

And that was exactly the intended image, as city and nonprofit leaders unveiled what they say is an unprecedented collaboration of Boston’s leading foundations and charities. The effort, dubbed the Boston Opportunity Agenda, aims to improve educational outcomes for Boston public school students from preschool through higher education. The $27 million committed for the first two years will boost a number of ongoing programs that target Boston students at different points across that wide age span.

“We want to make Boston a city renowned for upward mobility at a time when the data since the ’70s for society as a whole show that upward mobility has diminished and people are having more trouble realizing the American Dream,” says Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation. The foundation is leading the effort along with three of the city’s other largest philanthropic organizations, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Boston, Combined Jewish Philanthropies, and the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and the Merrimack Valley.

Though nonprofit leaders say they expect more money to follow the initial commitment, the dollars themselves may be less noteworthy than the joint participation of the city’s leading charities—and the ambitious goals and public accountability they are tying to the funding.
Among the nine goals put forward are a near tripling of the percent of Boston third-graders who test proficient in reading on the MCAS exam, from 31 percent last year to 85 percent by 2014; cutting in half the high school dropout rate over that time period; and doubling the percentage of Boston public schools graduates who go on to receive a two-year associate’s college degree or higher.

“They’re very ambitious, but I think some of them can be reached and I think significant progress can be made on all of them,” says Gro­gan. The clearly defined goals—and the plan to provide regular public accounting of the progress in meeting them—put the foundations and the city’s public schools on the line.

In the wake of the new education reform law passed in January, which gives districts new powers to intervene in underperforming schools, the initiative will really test “whether an urban district school system can perform,” says Grogan. “I don’t know the answer, but I’m glad we’re giving it our best shot.”

While the program will tap the wealth of information now available through school department data systems to track progress, and will make that information widely available online, the origins of the partnership lie in decidedly old-school networks.

Robert Beal, president of the Beal Companies real estate firm and a longtime Boston civic leader, says he simply had the thought, starting five years ago, that the city’s four major foundations “had never done anything together.” Beal, who serves on the board of Combined Jewish Phil­an­thropies, co-chairs a major United Way fundraising com­mittee, and has long ties to officials at the Boston Foundation and Catholic Charities, certainly knew who to call.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

He credits Rev. Ray Hammond, cofounder of the anticrime Ten Point Coalition and former chairman of the Boston Foundation board, with getting foundation leaders to zero in on education as the most compelling target for their efforts.

The collaboration of the various charities on a big project may well be unprecedented. In some ways, however, what’s surprising is that it didn’t happen sooner. “It’s a small city and we’re well-connected,” Beal says of the local civic leadership.