Next week will be an important milestone for one of Dorchester’s most treasured institutions: Mather Elementary School on Meetinghouse Hill will be marking its 375th birthday. Founded in 1639 with the support of taxes on local landowners, the school is the oldest public elementary school in North America.
The school has planned a week of events to celebrate the big day. One of the highlights will be a Duck Boat parade on Mon., Oct. 20, in which 90 students will board three of the famous land-water hybrid crafts at the school and proceed to the State House on Beacon Hill, where Dorchester legislators Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry and Rep. Evandro Carvalho will present a proclamation honoring the school.
The official observation of the school’s birthday will come two days later, on Wed., Oct. 22 ,at the Mather Auditorium from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m.. The event will include performances by Mather students and remarks by New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton, an alumnus of the school who previously served as Commissioner of the Boston Police Department. Boston Mayor Martin Walsh will also dedicate a street corner near the school in memory of Marie Conley, a Mather crossing guard who was killed in the line of duty by a vehicle in 2011.
The school is aiming to raise $375,000 as part of the celebration. The funds will be used to support core academic programs such as literacy, professional development for teachers and libraries in each classroom; enrichment activities such as before- and after-school programs; and building maintenance, including an upgrade to the auditorium.
A full schedule of the week’s events can be found at matherelementary.org/375.
The school is hoping for a big turnout. This summer they famously invited the Obamas to come visit the school through a video that soon went viral. The President and First Lady have not yet officially responded to the invitation.
Principal Emily Cox emphasizes the importance of the school’s historic legacy in terms of the school culture.
When people come to the school, she tells them, “As soon as you come in, whether you’re a volunteer, or a parent or a kid, you’re actually becoming part of America’s history.’” And, she emphasizes to her students, “with that comes a huge amount of responsibility. The expectation is, you’re going to do amazing things, because you’re making history just by being part of our community.”
The school’s sense of community is enhanced by its considerable diversity. Teachers and parents alike point to the wide range of cultures represented at the school, including Vietnamese, Haitian, Cape Verdean, African-American, and Irish. “It’s a school where students of so many diverse backgrounds all come together and learn together, “ said Marie Zemler-Wu, a parent and volunteer who is the lead organizer of the anniversary activities. “At the same time that they’re all working towards these same goals for reading and writing, and the whole array of things that kids need to learn, they’re also really celebrating what’s distinct about each child as an individual….and their culture and the place that they come from.”
The school’s sense of community reaches beyond its walls. The Mather has a strong network of community partners who help support the work of the staff and provide enrichment beyond the allotted annual budget. A Saturday Academy sponsored by HOPE Worldwide provides eight weeks of free science, tech, and art programming each fall and spring for up to 60 children; the Cub Scouts have recently opened a chapter at the school; and a partnership with City Sprouts has allowed the students to learn about nutrition by growing their own vegetables that they can take home.
The Mather has also been innovative in providing supports that are unique to its student body. The school has a large percentage of Vietnamese American students, many of whom arrive at the school with limited English proficiency. Although bilingual education programs were scrapped by the state in 2002, the school runs a Vietnamese Sheltered Instruction (SEI) strand, which involves separate classrooms from Kindergarten I to the 5th grade run by Vietnamese-speaking teachers. These classes are conducted in English, but allow for extra support and instruction in students’ native language, with the goal of mainstreaming them into full-English classrooms as soon as possible.
Mather graduate Vy Vu, who attended the school in the early 1990s and was part of the Vietnamese SEI strand for third and fourth grade, speaks to the school’s status as a community institution: “I still run into Ms. Loni [Nguyen, teacher of Vietnamese SEI 4th grade class since 1992] at St. Marks’ church in Dorchester,” she says. “And since I work for a K-12 education support organization in Boston, I also cross paths with [former principal] Kim Marshall. That I still cross paths with my teacher, principal, and classmates affirms that the Mather is a very important community institution, not only to me but also to countless other students who’ve passed through its doors.”
The school faces challenges in reaching its goals – nearly 80 percent of students are low-income and Cox cites poverty and trauma as key matters they must address. The combination of academic, social, and emotional support that teachers must provide their students means that “we all need to be super-people,” she says. “There are not enough hours in the traditional Boston Public School day” as of yet to fully address the myriad of challenges, she argues, which is why out-of-school enrichment programs are so critical. However, she says, she has complete faith in her staff to deliver: “Fortunately we’re blessed with an incredibly talented and dedicated staff, and everyone is giving 200 percent here.”
The school is also highlighted in “Restoring Opportunity: The Crisis of Inequality and the Challenge for American Education,” a book by Greg Duncan and Richard Murnane published this year that includes a study of one of the Mather’s pre-Kindergarten classes to show the importance of introducing children to classroom learning as early as possible.
The Mather has come a long way from the troubles it faced 25 years ago. The principal at that time, Kim Marshall, is credited by many for beginning to turn the school around through a number of innovations, including an emphasis on literacy programs and a focus on renovating the dilapidated school building. He also organized the school’s 350th anniversary celebration, which included a visit from Nancy Walker Bush Ellis, sister of former US President George H. W. Bush.
This 375th anniversary promises to build upon that history and to continue the school’s progress into the future with a celebration that, in keeping with Mather tradition, involves the entire community. All are invited to attend the events next week.