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Changing Boston’s Schools from Within

By: Scott Flaherty

February 22, 2011

In his freshman year of college, Scott Given learned a lesson he still carries with him.

He was in an education class at Dartmouth College when he first realized that his experiences in public schools, the opportunities he had growing up, were not the norm.

“It was eye-opening and mind-boggling at the same time to see the inequities.”

He was learning that schools in the poorest parts of America’s cities were much different from those in his hometown of Reading, Mass., a middle-class suburb of Boston.  Without a say, and without doing anything wrong, many of the kids in those city schools ended up on paths that never led them anywhere near the college classroom where Given was sitting.

During that class, Given said, a passion began stirring in him: “I wanted to use my good fortune to equal the playing field.”

That’s what Given, now 30, is trying to do as CEO of Unlocking Potential, a non-profit he started early last year.  The organization, according to its website, aims to turn struggling city schools into “extraordinary, high-performing, sustainable schools.”

Last Friday, at a coffee shop near Unlocking Potential’s office in Boston, Given said the organization’s first task is to create a charter school that will replace South Boston’s Gavin Middle School.  Gavin is one of nine schools that Boston’s superintendent, Carol R. Johnson, has slated to close after this year as part of the school system’s “Redesign and Reinvest” plan.

Under the plan, Given’s organization will renovate the Gavin building, hire a new team of teachers and administrators, and reopen in the fall as a charter school called UP Academy.  (“UP” stands for Unlocking Potential.)  All the students at Gavin will be guaranteed a spot in the charter school.

The model—an outside organization taking over an existing district school—has never been tried in Massachusetts and presents a host of challenges, according to Given.  Some of these are purely logistical.  Since the superintendent’s plan wasn’t officially approved until early December of last year, Given and the rest of his team have a short time to hire the 60 teachers and administrators to run UP Academy.

Given started Unlocking Potential after he finished a graduate degree at Harvard Business School.  Before that, though, he worked in charter schools in Boston, first as a teacher and then as a principal.

In 2003, Given took a job as a high school history teacher at Boston Collegiate Charter School in Dorchester.  Teaching was hard at first, he said, because his instinct was to create friendships with students instead of a more distanced, student-teacher relationship.

He planned to stay as a teacher at Boston Collegiate for several years but, in the spring of 2005, the executive director at Excel Academy in East Boston asked if he’d take over as principal there.  Excel was in tough shape—students were doing poorly in class and causing havoc in the hallways, and the former principal had left in the middle of the school year.  If teaching was “hard,” Given said, his first year as principal was “overwhelming.”

He explained that, as principal, he had to manage three groups: students, parents and teachers.  The first two presented their own challenges, but managing teachers, especially because he was only 24 when he started, was “really hard.”  After his first year there, 80 percent of the teachers left, but by his third year, the teachers had come around and the school’s students went from being among the lowest to among the highest achieving in the state.

Debra Cave, who lives in East Boston, sits on Excel Academy’s board of trustees.  She said she was skeptical when she first heard Given was taking over as principal.  “I said, ‘Well, how old is he?’”

But then, the two met in South Boston and went for a walk around Castle Island.  “By the time we were done walking, I was convinced,” she said.  “He was meant to be in that position.”

Given is just over six feet tall with short, dark hair and “contagious in terms of his enthusiasm,” according to Cave.  He has the rare ability to command respect from kids while still relating to them and built a “wonderful rapport with parents” in his time at Excel, she said.

When Given left Excel for business school, Cave said, she wasn’t sure he’d continue working in education.

But it was always Given’s plan to come back to education, though when he came back, he’d work for changes on a larger scale.  “I wanted to expand my ability to impact student achievement beyond the walls of one charter school,” he said, which is how Unlocking Potential got its start.

Last Friday, Given wore a black collared shirt with a white and red “Unlocking Potential” logo on the chest and didn’t seem comfortable talking about anything other than the plans for UP Academy.  He admitted that he roots for Boston’s sports teams, and tries to eat at a good restaurant once in awhile.  He sees his family when he can and, since he grew up nearby, in Reading, Mass., he has a group of friends who still live in the area.  He also has another “close-knit” group of friends who work in education.  He said they don’t always talk about school reform.

These days, though, it’s been hard for him to do much outside of work, or to think about anything else.  Given’s days start at 7:30 a.m. and don’t end until 10:30 p.m. or so.  Things, he said, are “intense.”

In the future, he said, Unlocking Potential would like to work in other schools and other cities.  But, in the intensity of finding private donors, continuing to improve the organization at Unlocking Potential, and “navigating the political climate” in Boston’s education world, Given hasn’t had time to figure out exactly what his organization will look like after next year.

For now, Given and his team are focusing on doing things right with UP Academy and, he said, all the long hours will be worth it once the school opens in the fall.

The way Given sees it, “The bigger the challenge, the bigger the impact.”

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