THE oldest public elementary school in the United States looks better than ever. Celebrating its 350th anniversary this year, the Mather School, in Dorchester, Mass., proudly displays its new floors and windows, freshly painted walls, graffiti-free facades, and the state-of-the-art playground gracing the entrance. ``Getting ready for the 350th has been a real rallying cry,'' says principal Michael Kim Marshall who spearheaded the drive to earn more than $1 million for the school through public and private sources.
The 350th celebration, held last month, provided an opportunity to affirm the long tradition of publicly supported education in the United States. The Mather School's rich history makes it a prime symbol of that tradition. The school - founded in 1639 - was named after Richard Mather, grandfather of Cotton Mather, the early American clergyman and writer.
Today Boston's Dorchester neighborhood is mostly blue-collar. Over the decades, however, it has come in and out of fashion. It is currently undergoing some gentrification while also struggling under the grip of poverty and polarization. Meeting House Hill, where the school was moved in 1694 and remains today, overlooks closely packed triple-decker houses.
The red-brick, ornate school building, built in 1905, hints of a bygone era when no expense was spared.
Festive pride was in the air at the school's 350th birthday party. The freshly painted school auditorium overflowed with parents, teachers, dozens of local and national VIPs, and alumni dating back more than 60 years.
The event's speakers included US Secretary of Education Lauro Cavazos, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, and Boston Mayor Ray Flynn. A time capsule was sealed with contemporary artifacts such as Nintendo video games and Batman memorabilia. The capsule is to be opened on the school's 400th anniversary.
Secretary Cavazos took the opportunity to reaffirm the Bush administration's commitment to education. He called the Mather School ``a monument to the American belief in great education.''
But the only standing ovation was reserved for the students who sang and acted out a play of the early days at the school.
The auditorium's stage was brightly decorated with banners celebrating the occasion and a world map highlighting the ethnic diversity within the school. The 560 students in grades K-5 are 61 percent black, 17 percent white, 10 percent Hispanic, and 11 percent Asian.
Lights twinkling across the map showed where the ancestors of current students and staff lived in 1639, when the school was founded. Many of the children on stage were colorfully dressed in the traditional costumes of their ancestors, complete with drawings of their native flags draped around their necks.
``You might as well have had the United Nations up there on stage,'' says Paul F. McCormack, a 1947 graduate who was impressed with the ethnic diversity of the students. When he attended the school, the student body was 100 percent white.
Mr. McCormack remembers his days at the Mather School fondly. ``My experience here was a very happy one; it was a great school,'' he says.
He hasn't forgotten his lessons either: He found his Spanish teacher in the crowd and recited the Pledge of Allegiance to her in Spanish just as she taught him some 40 years ago. ``She was ecstatic,'' McCormack says.
The memories of Mather graduates clearly reveal the changed world in which today's students live and learn.
McCormack reminisces about spending as much as half of each school day collecting scrap metal for the war effort. ``We'd gather it up in little wagons or carts and bring it back here and dump it into a large pile,'' he says.
Today's wars are waged much closer to home; such social ills as poverty, drugs, broken families, and child abuse are the enemy. Young people too often get caught in the battle zone.
The shiny new surroundings of the Mather School cannot hide the struggle involved in teaching youngsters who face such challenges. The most serious problem, says Mr. Marshall, is very low student achievement. Low achievement levels can identify a potential dropout as early as the second grade, he says. The challenge is to inspire elementary pupils to stay in school.
In an effort to raise morale, an array of short- and long-term educational programs has been put into place:
An incentive system has been set up to inspire better attendance. Classes that achieve a perfect record for three days in a row have a class photograph taken. It is displayed in the main hall and each child receives a copy. Ten days of perfect class attendance earns a pizza party.
A bus, called the ``Mathermobile,'' is available for eight to 10 field trips a year.
Every Friday, one or two students from each of the 26 homerooms receive awards for doing something special that week.
On a more far-reaching level, current fifth-graders have been promised college tuition if they graduate from high school and are admitted to college. The class has been adopted by Jamie Bush, President Bush's nephew, as part of the national ``I Have a Dream'' program, which raises funds for college tuitions.
As the current principal of such a storied school, Marshall looks at the job ahead with determination. ``We don't want to rest on our laurels, or consider the job as done,'' he says, ``We're really just beginning.''