As students head back to school today in Boston Public Schools, Charlestown’s Traci Walker Griffith – the principal of the Eliot School in the North End – reflected on how far the school has come in her tenure.
“I’m a proud principal; I say that all the time,” she said on Tuesday while preparing for the return of students this week. “When I came in 10 years ago we were an underperforming and underenrolled K-6 school with 150 students. We’ve expanded to a K-8 and have more than 600 students now. Slowly but surely we’ve improved. We haven’t closed every gap, but we’ve made gains every day. We’re not there yet, but we’re continuing to think outside the box about how to do instruction. You think about where you were and there’s a narrative and story there.”
The Eliot School is located in the North End, but has huge ties to Charlestown. Not only does Griffith hail from the Town, but about 32 percent of the school population – some 219 students – also come from Charlestown.
For Griffith, Charlestown living is part of why she loves her job in the North End. From attending St. Francis de Sales to coaching youth soccer to having her kids involved in the Boys & Girls Club, Charlestown has been a community that has made her daily walk across the North Washington Street Bridge to the Eliot even more enjoyable.
“When you think of a neighborhood, Charlestown is something special,” she said. “When things are going bad, they are here to rally behind you. When things are going well, they’re there to celebrate with you…Charlestown is not only an important part of the City’s history, but also the nation’s history. Charlestown really is a special place for me, from St. Francis Church to coaching soccer to my kids growing up there.”
Griffith landed at the Eliot and in Charlestown 10 years ago rather suddenly. Her family hails from the St. Gregory’s section of Dorchester, and she grew up in Framingham. However, she always knew she wanted to return to the City to teach. After attending college at Plymouth State (N.H.) and getting a master’s degree, she returned to Boston to teacher at the Trotter School in Roxbury. She taught at a variety of schools in Roxbury, Dorchester and Mission Hill – focusing on technology and getting technology in the homes of students. Then, after taking a principal training program in Dorchester, she learned of an opening at the little Eliot School in the North End.
But it started immediately.
She dropped into the position of the troubled school in April 2007 to finish the last 11 weeks of the school year. Later, she was appointed full time and moved her family from New Hampshire to Charlestown (with a short stop in the West End).
Then it became a matter of recruiting students and families to the school, putting her money where her mouth was, she said.
“I put my money where my mouth was,” she said. “I had a son and a daughter and I enrolled them at the Eliot. Families back then often said they weren’t sure this was the right school for their family and they weren’t sure about public schools. Then they saw me putting my kids here, and things changed.”
Her son, Joey, now attends Harvard University after graduating from Boston Latin School, and her daughter, Elizabeth, still attends Boston Latin School. Both graduated from the Eliot School. Her husband, John, also lives in Charlestown and is involved in the community.
The school is scattered between three sites and is comprised of 10 grades (K0-8), and about 680 students ages 3 to 15.
Part of the charm of the school is the fact that it’s separated and requires students to walk between buildings during the school day. It hearkens back to the old days when students in tight urban neighborhoods would often walk back and forth during the day.
“One of the greatest things about the school is students are coming and going in the neighborhood all day,” she said. “A specialist might be at the other site and the theatre might be her at the Charter Street site. The neighbors love it and the kids can go into the cafes around the neighborhood. Part of the curriculum is that they go into a restaurant here and order something while speaking Italian.”
The schools has developed into a family – a joyful environment where Griffith is more often seen conducting the work of the school in the hallways and classrooms rather than behind a closed door in an office. Instead of paperwork and phone calls, one might more readily see Griffith dancing with students during an assembly.
It’s the joyful culture she has brought into Charlestown and the North End.
But through it all, she said, it’s the first day of school – which is today, Sept. 6 – that keeps things fresh and exciting.
“I love the beginning of school,” she said. “Seeing the faces of the kids on their first day back is magic. To watch families drop off for the first time is beautiful. I’ll never tire of the first day.”