Chelsea honors Silber for commitment to early ed
By David J. Craig
Chelsea officials recently named the city's Early Learning Center for BU President Emeritus John Silber, in recognition of his efforts in revitalizing the district's public schools. The innovative program for three- to six-year-olds, widely regarded as a model for other school systems, was created at Silber's insistence shortly after Boston University took over management of the Chelsea schools in 1989, even though its price tag initially caused local controversy.
“John Silber made clear from the beginning that the Early Learning Center was a cornerstone of Boston University's plans in Chelsea,” said longtime Chelsea School Committee member Morrie Seigal at the March 26 dedication ceremony at the Shurtleff School, which houses the center. “I shudder to think what our schools would have looked like now, without [Silber] and Boston University.” It was Seigal who proposed to the School Committee that the center be named the John Silber Early Learning Center.
Early childhood education — along with high standards for teachers, regular measurement of student progress and school effectiveness, and curricula that emphasize reading and writing — is central to Silber's education philosophy. Over the past four decades he has argued that many youngsters are not nurtured intellectually at home in their formative years, and therefore start school without a solid foundation for learning. Silber served as an advisor on legislation creating the federal Head Start program in 1965.
Educators in Chelsea face extraordinary challenges in preparing students to succeed academically: about 20 percent of students speak no English when they start school, almost 70 percent are from homes where English is not the first language, and because the city serves as a gateway for many immigrants, between a quarter and a third of the city's students each year are new to the district.
Still, Chelsea's early education program, which was the first of its kind in the city, had opponents in the early 1990s. Some local educators, parents, and elected officials asked why they should spend precious dollars on a program not even required by law, when the entire school system was in shambles. (Massachusetts requires that districts offer half-day kindergarten, while the John Silber Early Learning Center provides full-day kindergarten to all students, prekindergarten classes for about 400 children, and a year-round Extended Day Program for young children of working parents.)
“When you take money out of a district's operating budget for a program that serves children who by law you aren't required to serve, you inevitably create controversy,” says SED Dean Douglas Sears, a former Chelsea school superintendent and a former chair of the BU Management Team that runs the Chelsea schools. “But Silber insisted through every storm and wave of budget cuts that this program was a nonnegotiable condition of BU's continuing investment in, and partnership with, Chelsea.
“The program has gone from being controversial to enormously popular,” continues Sears, who says the Early Learning Center has a stronger educational focus than most prekindergarten programs. “First-grade teachers now say that their students are well prepared in terms of their literacy skills and their conduct.”
Speaking at the dedication ceremony, Chelsea City Manager Jay Ash said that Silber will be remembered in Chelsea for his “leadership and heroism” and for “the vision, energy, and commitment” he brought to rebuilding the city's schools. “He cared enough,” Ash said, “not to let anything or anyone stand in his way.”
Before a large crowd of school officials and Early Learning Center teachers and administrators, Silber thanked the city's educators for embracing his vision. And he reiterated his conviction that the first six years of a child's life are the most important educationally. “If we do right by a child in those first six years,” he said, “there is little that the child will not be able to learn on its own later in life.”
“The success of Chelsea's schoolchildren depends” on the city's dedication to its Early Learning Center, he added. “And I can't think of anything else I'd like to have my name attached to than a facility that offers the possibility of fulfilled living for young children.”