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Robert W. Consalvo retires from charter school’s board

Posted by Jeremy C. Fox  July 26, 2011 02:01 PM

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(Photo by Sheryl Pace/Courtesy Academy of the Pacific Rim)

Consalvo spoke at the Academy of the Pacific Rim Charter Public School’s graduation ceremony on June 7.

The co-founder of a Hyde Park charter school and a community leader for more than 40 years has announced his retirement from the school’s board of trustees.

Robert W. Consalvo is leaving the board of the Academy of the Pacific Rim Charter Public School but plans to continue his involvement in the school’s foundation board.

In looking back on his long career in education and public service during a recent phone interview, Consalvo, 72, was modest.

“If there was something to do, people asked or I was around, that’s all,” he said.

Consalvo grew up on Metropolitan Avenue near Hyde Park High School, where his family moved around 1945. Both his parents were Italian immigrants and worked hard, his father at Westinghouse and his mother as a stitcher. They divorced while Consalvo was young, leaving his mother with much of the responsibility for raising him and his siblings.

“She was the one who was the rock in the family,” he recalled. “She raised us in kind of an old-fashioned way, to be respectful and behave and the like, and passed on the Italian traditions to us, which I hope to pass on to my kids in some way, too.”

The Consalvos were only the second Italian-American family on the street, but even then, he recalled, the neighborhood’s population was always changing, with new ethnic groups arriving in waves.

Upon his graduation from Hyde Park High in 1956, he went on to Boston College, selecting the school almost at random because he didn’t know anything about college options. After two years he left school to join the Army, where he developed his love of teaching while assigned to instruct others on how to use radar equipment.

“The service really teaches you how to teach,” he said. “You have to teach in front of a panel of sergeants and officers, and you have to practice and do lesson plans. It really was a very interesting experience.”

After returning home, Consalvo worked construction with his brother for a while. But while laboring in the sun one very hot day, he said to himself, “Am I crazy? I’m not going to do this all my life.” He then returned to Boston College and completed his studies in biology, graduating in 1964.

Consalvo became a biology teacher at Dorchester High School and completed his master’s degree at BC during his first two years of teaching. He then decided to pursue his doctorate and learned about the college’s new Educational Research, Measurement and Evaluation program.

With many new education initiatives being set up at the time under Title I of the 1965 federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, many people were needed with the expertise to evaluate those programs, so Consalvo took a chance on the burgeoning field. He looks back fondly on those days studying under education leaders such as Vincent Nuccio and George Madaus.

“I was like this Italian kid from Hyde Park who the furthest I ever went was like Nantasket Beach in the summer,” he said. “And all of a sudden, a new world opened up to me through BC. It was really just a remarkable experience for me, and I’m very thankful to have gotten it.”

He credits that experience with helping inspire him to get involved in Boston education issues.

“I knew what education could do for people. I knew what it did for me,” he said. “And I wanted kids to have the same opportunities as I had.”

After completing his doctorate, he taught at Boston University School of Education for a year. He then left teaching to found a company that performed program evaluations and research for school systems and social service agencies. During that time, he was also active in the community, helping to form and run the Hyde Park Community Development Corporation.

Consalvo observed the terrible upheavals of Boston Public Schools during the school desegregation crisis of the 1970s, which he recalled as a frightening period for his family and the community.

At the time, he and his wife Diane were living with their two children, Michelle and Rob, now a Boston city councilor, in a home they had built just behind the three-family house his mother owned on Metropolitan Avenue. Consalvo recalled the police and tanks that became part of the family’s daily routine.

“It was just awful, awful, awful,” he said. “My son had to go to school at the Greenwood, and my wife had to walk him down through the cops lined up on the street and through people yelling and the like, so it was really something to see.”

While Consalvo continued running his company throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, his work in the community drew him into local politics.

“It started, by the way, with Tom Menino,” Colsalvo recalled. “He’s the one that involved me in campaigns from the beginning, when he was working for Joe Timilty. … It’s all his fault that I’m involved in politics, I tell him.”

After campaigning for Raymond L. Flynn in his successful 1984 bid for mayor, Consalvo gave up his company and became an education advisor to Flynn.

“I said, ‘Well, here’s my chance to have an effect on Boston schools from the inside,’” he recalled. “Let me tell you, you couldn’t have any effect on the Boston schools in those days. None. Zero”

Flynn’s solution was to do away with the elected school committee and to appoint the committee himself. When his referendum proved successful with voters, Flynn asked Consalvo would serve as the first executive secretary for the newly reconstituted school committee.

It was a difficult time, marked by controversy over some of Consalvo’s ideas, including school vouchers. Consalvo remembered the school district’s administration as being adamant about keeping the status quo. Eventually, frustrated with the slow pace of change in the district and under pressure from vocal opponents, Consalvo resigned.

“I went down in flames, to be honest with you,” he said. “They didn’t want me there. I was causing them too much angst. So I left.”

Consalvo went on to take a position as director of research at the Boston Redevelopment Authority, where he worked until his retirement in 2003. But at the same time, he would keep fighting to improve public education, teaching statistics and research design part-time in the graduate school of education at Boston College until last year, and always looking for new ways to build successful city schools.

After charter schools were authorized by the state’s Education Reform Act of 1993, Consalvo and former school committee member Robert Guen got together and formed a plan. They saw the economic power and successful educational models of Japan and other Asian countries, but were surprised to find no schools on the East Coast that incorporated Asian-style teaching methods.

The two planned a school that would incorporate “the best of the East and the best of the West,” Consalvo said, and they named it the Academy of the Pacific Rim. Consalvo believes the key to the school’s success has been its clearly defined culture and the willingness of administrators, teachers, students, and parents to subscribe to that ethos.

“It’s reinforced my theory that, number one, anybody that says that urban kids can’t learn is full of baloney,” Consalvo said. “There’s such a bias toward urban kids learning, and how many times have I heard people say, ‘Well, he’s poor, he’s black, he’s brown, he doesn’t have a strong family therefore he’s not going to learn’? That’s nonsense. Absolute nonsense.”

Consalvo was very involved in the running of the school, especially in the early years, when he would typically speak with administrators a couple of times each week to ensure that the concept for the school was successfully translated into action. But he feels that now, with a successful track record and a strong board, the school is ready to continue without him.

“I don’t like when people hold on too long to something,” he said. “There’s a lot of young people and young talent in the world that can do a lot more than I can at this age.”

Since retiring from his position at the BRA, Consalvo has remained busy, reviving the Hyde Park Food Pantry when it had been forced to close for lack of leadership. After running the pantry for a couple of years, he handed it off to his nephew Joseph Consalvo, though he continued to offer occasional advice and to write grant applications.

Though he’s leaving the board of trustees, Consalvo plans to stay involved with the foundation that supports the academy. He hopes to take advantage of relationships the school has built within China, where they have a sister school in Beijing with an exchange program for teachers and students. He wants to expand that program and to bring Chinese students to Boston to study and prepare for American colleges.

While anyone who’s been so active for many years might have a hard time slowing down, Consalvo is confident that he’s ready now to focus on relaxing and enjoying time with his grandchildren.

“I’ve always been a believer that there’s a time for everything,” he said. “You just know when it’s time I think.”

Email Jeremy C. Fox at jeremycfox@gmail.com.

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(Photo by Sheryl Pace/Courtesy Academy of the Pacific Rim)

At the graduation ceremony, Consalvo awarded the the Robert W. and Diane Consalvo Founder's Scholarship to valedictorian Stacey Hall of Hyde Park, who will attend Johns Hopkins University in the fall.

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