It's been two weeks since the race for Boston mayor narrowed to two candidates. City Councilor John Connolly and State Representative Marty Walsh have been laying out their platforms – from transportation to public safety. WGBH News has assigned reporters to the campaign trail...not to cover the sound bites of the moment, but to look deeper into the issues for the next five weeks. This week, Anne Mostue examines John Connolly's plans to shake up the city’s public schools.
To assess Connolly’s plans for the Boston Public Schools, let’s start by watching him in a classroom:
STUDENT: “When you’re up there putting your speech in front of a lot of people, how do you keep it together without messing up or fumbling?”
CONNOLLY: “That’s really hard. I think the only way you do it is to practice a lot. You gotta read that speech by yourself, look in a mirror, and read. And sometimes I still mess up…”
Connolly is at Citizen Schools, an after school program on Fan Pier.
STUDENT: What do you say on the topic of uniforms?
CONNOLLY: What do I say on school uniforms? I knew I wasn’t going to get out of here without a question like that. One of those tough ones. You know what? Good for you for asking a question that you care about.”
Connolly appears at ease with the students, even more so than he’s been at recent press conferences and debates before adults. He speaks with a softer tone of authority and asks them several questions. Afterward, the students said they liked hearing his dispatches from the campaign trail…
Tatiana Pires is a 6th grader from East Boston.
“I think that he is generous and smart. I’d say maybe because I haven’t met the other ones and I have to give them an opportunity. I’m an undecided voter right now. I need more time to see. But I’ll definitely think.”
Tatiana is meeting Connolly because she’s learning about civics in her after school program. It represents the major change Connolly wants to make to the city’s public schools.
“An extended school day, so that they get arts and music, science, physical education but more than that I want to make sure that every child can get the opportunity that young girl has. And sadly, it’s hit or miss in Boston public schools.”
Right now afterschool programs vary from school to school, depending on funding, which largely comes from grants.
Erik Champy is president of Massachusetts Parent Teacher Association. He’s not taking a side in the mayor’s race, but said parents and teachers are most concerned with budgets, classroom size and access to vocational programs.
“Mayor Menino had the ability to sit down at the table and really work with educators and administrators, committed a significant amount of resources to work with children at risk, Job Corps, to create social programs and to support social and emotional services in the schools.”
But Menino failed to win over the Boston Teachers Union on longer school days, and Connolly may have trouble too. He upset the union after, as a city councilor, he voted against their contract. And he’s in favor of more charter schools.
But Connolly said his issue is not with the teachers themselves.
"My issue is not with the teachers, it's with their contract that gives our kids one of the shortest school days in urban America and has hiring rules that are dictated almost entirely by seniority," he said. "So we're not thinking about teaching, we're thinking about length of service."
It’s not clear whether Connolly will get the Boston teacher’s union endorsement. Union president Richard Stutman saod the union may not endorse either candidate, but he said longer school days will need to be balanced – with work and play.
“For us the issue in extended day was based on how long the time would be and what would be in the extended day. We did not want an extra hour or two hours of mathematics. That would ensure one thing: the child would hate mathematics.”
The union wants optional extended day programs, and fewer charter schools.
“The major issue for us has been that he’s in favor of, in our view, privatizing the public schools by allowing the unfettered growth of charter schools,” Stutman said.
And despite Connolly’s work as a teacher, it’s worth noting that he’s spent more of his career as a lawyer. After graduating from Roxbury Latin private school and Harvard, he taught three years at the Nativity Mission middle school in New York City. Then another year teaching in Boston at the Renaissance Charter Public School. He left the field for law school in 1998- not long after Menino had invited Bostonians to vote based on education.
“Judge me by these schools,” Menino said.
The next mayor probably will face the same judgment, whether invited or not.