By Seth Daniel
It was just one year ago that Charlestown High’s Sunny Pai was considering his employment options as he came to grips with the fact that highly-publicized funding issues in the Boston Public Schools were going to force his innovative Diploma Plus program to shut down.
It didn’t look hopeful through the spring, and reluctant announcements from Headmaster William Thomas confirmed that the program was going to be cut.
It was a major loss for marginalized students in the district, and especially at Charlestown High, where the unique program for students who are on the edge of dropping out had routinely found success within that different learning environment.
So it was a remarkable feeling on Monday for Pai when he was accepting an innovation award from the regional Nellie Mae Foundation that came with a $100,000 check. So, not only was Diploma Plus saved from closure in a year’s time, but also it had been singled out by a prestigious educational foundation as a program to emulate.
“Last April I spent one night a week out of the house missing time with family, which I don’t like to do,” he said. “I didn’t know what was going to happen. Today made it feel that something good came out of those sacrifices and not the status quo. Having this award today and the ceremony really makes that all feel worth it.”
Pai was singled out by Nellie Mae – which studies and rewards innovative educational programs around New England – for the Lawrence O’Toole Leadership Award. With that award came a $100,000 check that could be used for the program at their discretion.
Pai said on Monday, during the awards ceremony, that the money had been used mostly for the funding of an additional teacher for this year in the Diploma Plus program.
The program began in 2009 when teachers at Charlestown High advocated for a specialized program that would take a different tack with students who were not finding success within the general education classes. With specialized assistance and a challenge to students who had been chronically failing, many students found their way to a diploma or to college.
At Monday’s ceremony, one of those students was George Blalock, who graduated from Diploma Plus and will graduate in a matter of weeks from Hampshire College.
It wasn’t a path he was even considering before he met Pai.
“I watched my sister and mother stress over me traveling down a troubled path,” he said. “Despite all that, Diploma Plus took a chance on me to overcome the self-doubt I had and form a future and a life avoiding all the things that would have not been detected under the normal school’s radar…Diploma Plus is a prime example of real education for real people…Mr. Pai is a great leader who wants us to have success. He is committed to the future of our society. He taught me to do better, want better and be better.”
Current student Yusmeiry Bruno said she was challenged to think deeper and more critically, and it was something she never had taken into consideration.
“I feel I was given a second chance to rewrite my wrongs; and who doesn’t like a second chance,” she said.
“They pushed me to think critically about things,” she continued. “At the time I thought they were insulting me. I thought they were telling me I wasn’t thinking deep like they were…Last year, when we were going to be shut down because of budget cuts, Sunny fought hard to keep the program open for us…We were successful and I thank him because I don’t think I would have gone back to school if it had been cut.”
Supt. Tommy Chang, whom Pai credited with saving the program last year, said Boston is one of the top major city educational systems, but it still leaves many marginalized students.
“We should be proud that we are at the top, but we still have large achievement gaps and those gaps exist specifically for students who we have marginalized,” he said. “We shouldn’t try to innovate just to innovate, but so we can make a difference to the students who are marginalized…It has been said, ‘Young people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.’ That’s what has happened here.”
Nick Donohue, president of Nellie Mae, said the O’Toole award and all other awards they give out are given to programs that seek to promote student-centered learning. That term is used to describe learning techniques where teachers do not simply lecture in front of a classroom, but rather they put the students in charge of directing their own learning – acting as a guide to that process.