Original URL: http://www.boston.com/news/education/k_12/mcas/articles/2003/10/11/a_learning_experience_inside_the_citys_schools/

A learning experience inside the city's schools
Boston Globe

By Chad Gifford

FOR ONE DAY last fall, I traded my office at FleetBoston Financial for the hallways of the Murphy School in Dorchester, where I walked in the shoes of the principal, Mary Russo. It was one of the more enriching experiences of my career, highlighted by my visit to Clare Dowling's fourth grade reading class where 9-year-olds, bursting with pride, eagerly shared their writing assignments with me.

This fall, business and civic leaders from across the city and region will have the same opportunity to experience life inside a Boston public school. On Oct. 28, the Boston Plan for Excellence and the Boston Public Schools will host Principal For A Day.

This unprecedented initiative presents an opportunity for these leaders to learn about the changes, challenges, and progress within the nation's oldest public school system and to share ideas and insights with the very people who are shaping the minds and skills of the next generation.

Over the last two decades, I have come to realize that many of our schools, despite the headlines and rhetoric, are doing a far better job of preparing our children for future productive citizenry than we acknowledge or may know.

Boston has 139 public schools, 62,400 students, and 4,500 teachers who serve a high proportion of low-income, non-English speaking and special needs students.

For decades, the city school system was criticized for poor performance. Literacy and math scores were among the lowest in the state. And, indeed, for too long, learning fell short of what students needed to be productive citizens and to function well in their communities. But we have invested in change. And since the education reform act of 1993, Boston's reform work has begun to deliver real returns.

Recent MCAS results among the city's public school students have improved across all grades and in all subject areas, exceeding statewide gains in almost every instance. In English language arts, in particular, both district and individual school scores have steadily improved since 1998.

The work being done is not easy and does not produce quick results. The steady gains on MCAS do show, however, that the schools are on the right path. But we recognize that there is much still to do.

No one depends on Boston's public schools more than the region's business leaders. We count on them to educate our future workforce -- the foundation of our knowledge-based economy. And many of the challenges and opportunities these schools face can be addressed through greater support from the business community.

We owe it to ourselves to understand the barriers that exist locally, to form partnerships and to collaborate on ways to mine the extraordinary talent that exists in our city's schools. We also owe it to the children and young adults of Boston.

I hope many in our business and civic communities will share in the experience of being Principal For A Day. Boston's health care and financial services CEOs, in particular, have readily embraced the opportunity, and I know the experience of their own industry's challenges will be invaluable to the teachers, educators, and students they will spend the day with.

I also hope that on Oct. 28, as Principals For A Day ventures into the city's schools, participation by the region's senior business leaders will reflect the rich diversity of industries that exist in our local economy, inspiring students by their example and enriching our schools by their involvement.

Chad Gifford is chairman of the board of the Boston Plan for Excellence in the Public Schools and chairman and chief executive officer of FleetBoston Financial Corp.

Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.