By Seth Daniel
It’s a rare holiday that School Committee Chair Michael O’Neill’s cell phone doesn’t ring while he’s at the beach or on vacation, or even relaxing around his Charlestown home.
Duty constantly calls the chair of the Boston School Committee, now in his fourth year of leading the body and just starting out his ninth year on the Committee.
Whether it’s commenting on budget matters, a new elementary initiative or some sort of school-related breaking news, O’Neill never hesitates to answer the call, as he said it may not be his full-time job, but it’s a full-on passion of his.
“It can be 24/7, but that’s ok,” he said during a recent interview at Zume’s. “It’s a passion of mine, absolutely. My wife will say that if you want to talk about something I’m interested in, talk to me about marketing of financial services, which is my job. However, she’ll say that if you want to hear about my passion, then talk to me about education, public school education in particular.
“It’s a full-time job as chair and substantial time and energy,” he added, noting that he is the spokesperson for the seven-person Committee that oversees the administration of 128 public schools.
As school starts this week, on Sept. 8 for most students in Boston Public Schools, O’Neill said he hasn’t slowed down on his passion to make sure the district is performing at a high-level from one side of the City to the other.
O’Neill said he has personally visited 90 of the 128 schools and hopes to see all of them by the end of his term in December. Through those personal visits, he said he has learned of the great untold stories in the Boston Public Schools.
“I like to be out visiting our schools, talking with teachers and students and engaging with parents,” he said in a recent interview. “It drives me crazy the parents who say it’s Latin School or private school and the Boston Public Schools stink. Parents who say that haven’t been in a Boston Public School in 30 or 40 years. We have shining stars all throughout our district outside of Latin School at all levels of the district. Whether it’s the Warren Prescott in Charlestown, the Nathan Hale in Roxbury or the turnaround work at the Channing School in Hyde Park, we have great schools. If you look at our high schools well beyond our exam schools, whether Fenway High or Boston Arts Academy or Margarita Muniz Academy – the first dual language high school in all New England, we have shining stars throughout the district. Do we also have challenges? Absolutely, and that’s because we take all students.”
O’Neill is married to Rana Murphy O’Neill and is a stepfather of three. The family has made their home in Charlestown for the past nine years, with O’Neill walking to his financial services marketing job on North Washington Street almost every day.
On those walks, in stopping at the Bunker Hill Mall or at Zume’s for a cup, he said he’s often recognized and approached, and he said it’s a conversation he values.
“We have some really excellent school here particularly in Charlestown,” he said. “The number one question I get when I’m approached in Zume’s or on the street is how parents can get their kids into the Warren Prescott. The second is the Eliot School, and the third request is usually the Harvard Kent. We have a lot of amazing schools here in our neighborhood. My job on the School Committee, though, is to make sure every neighborhood has quality schools like we have here in Charlestown. We are really looking for equity and quality.”
O’Neill, 55, said he is not originally from Charlestown.
“I’m not a Townie,” he confessed right off the bat.
Rather, he grew up in Jamaica Plain, one of five siblings, and attended the Manning School – a school that still exists and for which O’Neill said he is very proud because it has gone from a Level 3 to a Level 1 recently. He went to Boston Latin School and graduated in 1978, going on to graduate from Boston College.
“I’m a JP kid, born and raised in the city,” he said. “I am BPS all the way as is most of my family. All of us still live in the city, with most of my family living in West Roxbury. I moved out to Charlestown. It was a big thing when I moved all the way over here.”
Throughout his childhood, O’Neill said public service was always stressed, as his father served in the inner circle of City government under Mayor Michael Collins. With that foundation, he began to be interested in the School Committee because he was concerned about the dropout rate. When Dr. Carol Johnson (a former Charlestown resident too) was superintendent, she was focusing on the issue, and he became interested.
That translated into his applying for the School Committee, and being the final appointment of Mayor Tom Menino before he stepped down.
He said he is very proud of the work done to lower dropout rates, cutting the BPS rate in half through initiatives like the Re-Engagement Center and the proactive work of drop out prevention specialists.
One of the biggest things they will be looking at in the coming year is school start times, which has been given lots of publicity by City Councilor Anissa Essaibi George – a former teacher. O’Neill said it’s complicated, but they will consider it.
“A lot of studies coming out show later start times are better, particularly for high school,” he said. “There are differences in a teen-ager’s brain…We’re looking more into these studies for later start times in high school…It becomes complicated because many kids have jobs and many play sports.”
He said pushing back start times later in the afternoon can hurt sports in the fall, especially, because many fields don’t have lights and it gets dark very early in November. It’s also challenging because there are so many buses and they are staggered through three start times in the district.
“It is something we really have to consider though,” he said.
Another hot-button issue is admission standards to the exam schools, and O’Neill said he isn’t necessarily in favor of changing the standards, but eliminating opportunity gaps.
“At this point, I don’t feel we need to change the admissions policy, but we need to eliminate the opportunity gaps that exist for BPS kids to get into Latin School and others,” he said.
One of the programs he said he is proud of is a test prep program for the exam school, which was expanded from 450 to 750 students. He also said one opportunity gap for BPS students is the way grade point averages (GPA) are calculated. In some cases, a BPS student could have a higher GPA than a private school student, but because of the different calculations, the BPS student appears to have a lower GPA.
“That’s an opportunity gap,” he said. “Different grading systems result in different GPAs. We’re unintentionally, but effectively, hurting BPS students…That is about leveling the playing field.”
He said he and other members of the School Committee see their purpose as helping students and families who have the ability to navigate the system, but also to speak up for students who don’t have a voice advocating for them. In that sense, he said he challenges anyone who says “BPS stinks” to step up and help if they really think that’s the case.
He insisted they would be surprised at what they find.