Happy 374th birthday! Mather Elementary, America’s oldest school, is ramping up for the big milestone next year

Dave Eisenstadter, Special to the Reporter
Oct. 10, 2013

Dorchester’s Mather Elementary School will soon turn three and three-quarters centuries old – but not yet.

The fact that this year is the Parish Street institution’s 374th birthday rather than its 375th is not stopping the members of its parents’ council, however. They’ve already begun planning a year’s worth of celebrations leading up to the big 375th bash.

“We’re celebrating what the Mather is today, which is probably the most diverse school in the city – economically, racially, and ethnically,” said Marie Zemler Wu, a member of the school’s parent council.

The big event will be on Oct. 20, 2014, which will consist of a grand gala with fundraisers for the school and appearances by political figures, famous alumni of the school, and possibly descendants of Richard Mather himself, for whom the school is named.

In the mean time, Zemler Wu and her anniversary committee are planning events including a school festival and a history lecture with the Dorchester Historic Society.

The kickoff event will be held on Tuesday, Oct. 29, at 7 p.m. at The Blarney Stone. There will be a history trivia game with prizes, raffles from local businesses, and Mather memorabilia. The cost is $25 per person and $35 at the door.

Founded in 1639, the Mather is widely considered the nation’s first tax-supported school, according to Zemler Wu. She found that historic documents from 1645 laying out rules for schoolmasters were already laying the groundwork for public education.

“It said they ‘would serve all, whether their parents be poor or rich, not refusing anyone,’” Zemler Wu said. “It is kind of amazing they were already thinking that before the nation was even started.”

The school is carrying on that legacy of inclusion. Of the 620 students at the school, about 50 percent speak a language other than English at home, according to School Principal Emily Cox.

The school is facing challenges, however. In a 2010 report by the Massachusetts School Building Authority, the Mather School was one of only two in Boston to receive the lowest general environment rating.

Cox described the building, constructed in 1905, as having osteoporosis and arthritis.

“The building itself is inspiring in many ways, but structurally, our bones are old,” Cox said.

Though the building is littered with classical statues and intricate architecture, there are leaks throughout it. The building also needs a complete renovation of the HVAC system and it is not handicapped accessible, Cox said.

“Right now we are excluding kids based on the basis of physical disability, and that doesn’t sit well with any of us,” Cox said.
That rare administrator who commands respect and yet an easy rapport with her staff, Cox greets everyone she sees in the school as she walks the halls on a Friday afternoon.

Girl Scouts are meeting in the school library, which was renovated in 2009 by a grant from Target and the Heart of America Foundation. Workers are chipping away at peeling paint in a hallway. Upstairs, in the gym/auditorium, a coach is leading an after school program that combines academics and soccer instruction.

Helping out with the after school program is graduate Ednilda Lopes-Hunt. Now an eighth grader at UP Academy Charter School, Lopes-Hunt returns to volunteer at the Mather, where she graduated in 2011.

“I just really love coming back here; I love this school and soccer is my sport,” Lopes-Hunt said.

Lopes-Hunt said she is proud to have gone to the first public school, and said that the school is still functioning well.

Cox tries hard to make the school a haven for kids to learn and feel safe.

“Given the outside challenges from a socio-economic standpoint, many of our kids have experienced traumatic situations, including poverty,” Cox said. “We pride ourselves in being that school where we’re more than a school – we’re a family to them.”

Zemler Wu said that in addition to celebrating the school’s history and it’s status as a diverse school, parents hope that the 375 celebration will be a leg up for the school in the future.

“Our big idea is to serve all 600 children who are here and take this school to the next level,” she said.

To get tickets for the kickoff celebration, visit thematherschool.eventbrite.com.