In 1975, when the BU School of Education hired Ruth Shane full-time to run the college’s community experience programs, she’d recently completed her master’s degree here and thought she’d work at BU for two or three years. That was a stunningly low estimate; she found it impossible to walk away from BU’s growing partnership with the city’s youth, and after BU chose her in 1982 to direct its fledgling Boston Public Schools Collaborative, she never left. The collaborative now oversees more than a dozen programs, including Upward Bound; Upward Bound Math and Science; Step UP, which joins with other universities to help 10 Boston schools; and the federal work-study program BUILD.
Later this week, after hearing recitations of a long list of accolades for her outreach work, and after years of watching like a proud parent as hundreds of students from Upward Bound—the campus-based college preparatory program for low-income and first-generation city high schoolers—and Menino Scholars (formerly Boston Scholars) achieve professional success, Shane (SED’73) is retiring. It’s a move she compares to “stepping off a cliff into the unknown.” But it’s time, she says. “It feels good.”
Shane’s position, which she took over from a director who served only two years, was created as a response to Judge W. Arthur Garrity, Jr.’s historic Boston public school desegregation and compulsory school busing ruling in 1974. Her long career parallels the most tumultuous as well as the most fruitful years of the city’s educational system as it addressed—and continues to address—the challenge of equal opportunity among Boston’s diverse student population.
“I was at SED placing BU students in volunteer opportunities; that’s how I got drawn in,” says Shane, who honed the SED school collaboration program along with other BU colleges, including Metropolitan College, the College of Communication, and the College of Arts & Sciences. The unprecedented partnership between higher education and public schools was in large part the creation of Robert Sperber, a former Brookline school superintendent hired as an advisor by the late John Silber (Hon’95), president of BU from 1971 to 1996.
The money was flowing—there were plenty of grants—but it was Shane and her SED experience that gave the collaborative its human side and turned it into something life-changing, says Douglas Sears, vice president and chief of staff to BU President Robert A. Brown. Sears says he turned to Shane over the years when he wanted to understand “who does what and why” in Boston public schools. “Ruth is one of those people who works at that place where noble-sounding ideas get tested, implemented, and improved,” says Sears. “She’s the person who figures out how to deliver tutors and interns to public schools and make sure their work isn’t just a ‘feel good’ exercise.”
Driven by Shane’s down-to-earth manner, what Sears calls her “watchful, loving, eye,” and modest efficiency, high school principals’ early reluctance to embrace the programs eased as the schools grew more open to BU and other universities’ involvement. Today the programs remain crucial, even in light of greater flexibility and innovations such as school choice, says Shane. “The schools are far less suspicious of higher ed,” she says, “but the issues are still there—teacher quality, diversity among teachers. The school system is working at bringing a measure of equity to reduce the number of parents placing their children in charter schools.”
“Her commitment to equity is unparalleled,” says Hardin Coleman, dean of SED. “For decades she has provided leadership in the work that we do to support college access and college completion of Boston public school students.”
In 2009 Shane’s contribution to BU was recognized by her colleagues, the BU Faculty Council, who presented her with the John S. Perkins Distinguished Service Award. And a photograph on Shane’s office wall captures the moment President George H. W. Bush shook her hand as she accepted the 1991 Point of Light Award (#351) for her Partners in Learning mentoring program.
As director of the collaborative, Shane developed and shepherded a long list of initiatives as well as served as a higher education representative on many school and community advisory boards and committees. She also coordinates BU’s role in the America Reads literary challenge, which matches BU students with students at Boston middle schools.
There are many former Boston Scholars who now teach in the Boston schools, says Shane. “There are also doctors, lawyers, and bankers who’ve been part of my life for decades. My message to students is, ‘your success is BU’s success,’” says Shane, who is particularly proud of the Menino Scholars, the Upward Bound college preparatory program, and SED’s partnership with the William Monroe Trotter Innovation School in Dorchester, a former magnet school that was desegregated. Along with the English High School of Boston, the Trotter School was part of the Step UP program created in 2006 by then-Mayor Thomas M. Menino (Hon.’01), currently codirector of BU’s Initiative on Cities, which teamed five local universities with public schools that were faring poorly in meeting the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Over the years, Shane has formed close relationships with young scholars (both Upward Bound graduates and Menino Scholars) that carry on to this day. “They’re these amazingly wonderful people, and I’ve developed adult relationships with them,” says Shane. “They come back to BU and we have a cocktail and schmooze. I keep up with their lives through Facebook, watch their kids grow up.” When the scholars have reunions or events “they come from all over the country,” says Shane.
But beyond all the young people Shane and the collaborative have nurtured and inspired, she is also fortunate that the program, born out of Boston’s racial disparities, has led to an ongoing, “honest conversation about race and ethnicity at a very deep level,” she says. “I am truly a better person for having been in this job.”