Big money for the small things

Charitable donations to schools can often come with as many strings attached as a symphony orchestra. I'll give you a pool, but I want name plaques at the end of every lane. I'll donate a dining hall, but don't serve shepherd's pie because I hated it as a kid.

When Boston philanthropists Pam and Alan Trefler handed two Boston public high schools $2 million last week, there was just one major string attached: Pam.

There's a bit more to it. The couple have their sights set on one thing that counts for a lot in a post-Littleton, Colo., world: the personal touch. They're putting their money behind adult and student involvement in schools as well as restructuring large campuses into smaller units where teachers and students know one another well. But to set the tone, Mrs. Trefler, a former investment banker who has a master's degree in education, helps teach English once a week at one school. She's a familiar presence who peppers students with questions about academic goals and personal quests. She stays in contact with administrators and teachers.

It's a big gesture with a small-town touch. The connections the Treflers are boosting can't be forged with money alone, though that certainly helps rebuild schools and shrink class size. What's important is the focus on adult-student ties, the kind that let kids know they're noticed, that they're not lost in the vast middle of a public school - that even if they aren't at the top of the honor roll or well-known to the detention patrol, their lives and dreams matter. That's the kind of string most schools can live with.

*E-mail: newcomba@csps.com

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