Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Ellen Guiney, tenacious education reformer

Ellen Guiney is retiring from her post leading the Boston Plan for Excellence, the local education fund and spur to reform which she has led for the past sixteen years. Yesterday I attended her goodbye reception at the top of the Bank of America building in downtown Boston, overlooking the glittering harbor. Bank presidents, superintendents, and the Massachusetts Secretary of Education all went over their allotted time to regale us with tales of how Ellen has inspired them, argued with them, prodded them, and never let them waver from their duty to the schoolchildren of Boston.

Founded in 1984 by First National Bank of Boston, the Boston Plan for Excellence or BPE began as a family of charitable funds donated by financial, legal, and insurance firms and devoted to special projects that carried the donor's name. When Ellen came in, she convinced the donors to pool their funds and focus on whole school change with a sharp focus on the quality of instruction in the schools. In partnership with superintendent Tom Payzant, she helped raise $100 million over ten years from foundations such as Annenberg, Carnegie, and Gates. The Plan and the district devoted the funds to setting up coaching models, professional learning communities, data systems, teams to look at how policies should change, and efforts to restructure high schools.

Ellen pulled together a fantastic team. She read and digested research, examined and displayed data, asked questions, doubted, and re-designed. She sat on the couch in her office surrounded by piles of paper and sparked ideas for her devoted staff to spin off. She incubated the Boston Teacher Residency Program, which has supplied 300 promising new teachers, many of them teachers of color, to the Boston Public Schools. According to yesterday's testimonials, she cornered people in the grocery store to talk to them about reform ideas. Sometimes she even laughed at herself.

BPE served as a laboratory for the Boston Public Schools and even the state. The district picked up BPE's successful coaching and data programs and implemented them district wide. When BPE developed an early warning system to identify middle school students at risk of dropping out or failure, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education decided to spread its use to all 351 school districts.

There's so much more I could say. Ellen built dialogue among charter, parochial, Jewish Day, secular private, and public schools in Boston. She sought doggedly and not always successfully to maintain positive relations with the Boston Teachers Union. According to her staff, she lugs giant trash bags stuffed with recycling from the BPE office down to her truck to take home so they can be properly recycled, and does so with no smidgen of concern that she might be mistaken for a bag lady.

And all of this has paid off for the children of Boston. Tomorrow I'll share some data that demonstrates how, with steady, persistent, thoughtful attempts at improvement, urban school systems can come to serve all their students much better.

Ellen is small, slight, and easily embarrassed. She blushes easily, and she would rather stand at the back of the crowd. Yesterday her colleagues hauled her up front and made her listen. Once again, the real beneficiaries were all the rest of us. I walked away inspired by what one smart, dedicated, patriotic woman can do to change the lives around her.

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