Cover Story » Vol. 32

Being Melinda

melinda-boone-pic-8-122By Donna Roberson

If you meet Dr. Melinda Boone at a party or out shopping, she’ll likely introduce herself simply as Melinda Boone.

That’s because Worcester’s superintendent of schools sometimes likes to be just Melinda, a woman with two daughters and a granddaughter who likes reading, traveling and movies. And, of course, sports ~ especially basketball and football.

“I can’t wait until March for March Madness,” she said with an impish grin.
But as the first person of color to hold the position of superintendent and the first woman to be appointed to the position in a permanent capacity, Boone’s job doesn’t just end with the school day. It’s a position full of challenges and rewards that started on Day One, when Boone took on the role of superintendent in 2009.

Right off the bat, Boone said, she faced two challenges ~ being a woman and being an outsider.

“Gender matters,” she said. But, as a self-described “people person,” Boone saw those challenges as opportunities.

“They created the greatest opportunity for me to build a relationship with the community,” Boone said, adding that as an outsider, she had the benefit of starting with a clean slate.

But the road to Worcester hasn’t always been easy. Originally from Virginia, Boone made the move to Worcester by herself in 2009.

Boone had originally begun to look at superintendent positions several years earlier, when she and her husband decided that it was time for Boone to focus on her career. Then, a sudden heart attack claimed her husband ~ who was also her high school sweetheart ~ at 47. Her youngest daughter asked to be able to finish high school in Virginia. Boone said she agreed, feeling that her children had been through enough changes, with the death of their father. However, when Boone’s youngest daughter graduated from high school, it was time for Boone to focus on herself and her career, and she accepted the position as superintendent in Worcester, packed up and moved.

“I never thought about it being a courageous move. It was just good timing,” Boone said.

Now, in her fourth year as Worcester’s superintendent of schools, Boone is at home in New England.

“Worcester is home to me,” Boone said. “People describe folks from New England as not being as friendly ~ that was not the case for me.”

Part of what eased the way for Boone was joining the John Street Baptist Church, where she is also part of the women’s ministry.
“Faith is my core,” Boone said. “I had to say to God, ‘OK, God, you led me to Worcester.’ ”

Through her church, Boone began to make friends. Finally, she was invited to go to the movies with a group of women. That invite, Boone said, made her finally feel that she was settling into life as a New Englander.

“That was huge for me,” Boone said, and those women remain her friends today; they are the friends with whom she can simply relax. “There are times when it’s Melinda time, not superintendent time.”

But being superintendent is still a large part of Boone’s life. Heading up a school district that serves more than 25,000 students and encompasses about 80 languages, Boone is sensitive to the diverse needs of her student population ~ and the benefits and experiences each student brings to the classroom.
“Many people will see diversity as being a negative. I really see that as an asset,” Boone said. “We don’t live in a single demographic world.”

Creating the next generation of community and leaders who understand and appreciate their differences, but still share the core values of democracy, is what she sees as the school district’s mission.

Students, she said, come from all over the world and speak many different languages, but “not speaking English as a first language is not a disability.”
Boone said Worcester schools have excellent English Language Learner programs, and students can learn English while also studying science and math. In fact, one of her favorite success stories is that of a young woman who arrived from Afghanistan with little education and no English-speaking skills. In 2012, that woman graduated as valedictorian of South High Community School.

“That’s an example where language didn’t represent an ability to learn. That’s an example of lack of access,” Boone said. “That’s my job as superintendent ~ to make sure those opportunity gaps are closed.”

Boone said she wants to build consensus and energy around the vision of creating opportunities for all students and making sure a diploma from Worcester “will stand up with the best in this Commonwealth.”
“My grandfather always said the difference between success and failure for most folks is opportunity.”

Boone said she has been working on building partnerships with the community to create the best opportunities for students, such as meeting quarterly with business leaders to find out what they’re looking for in the next generation of employees. Out of those meetings came an educational redesign, in which students who are training for careers follow the same path as students preparing for college ~ learning the same math, science and language skills for the challenges they will confront in the workforce.

“Even if you go to college, the goal of college is a career,” Boone said. “Everything is changing.”

And, of course, in the wake of the Sandy Brook shootings in Newtown, Conn., Boone has answered a lot of questions about school security. She said the school has reviewed its safety procedures and has an excellent relationship with city police and fire departments. Boone said that school safety is always an issue, and she must balance the need to create a safe school and the need to maintain a sense of normalcy for students.

“I’m a parent and a grandparent, and so that’s my approach to safety and security. I take it seriously as a parent,” Boone said. “And every day, I pray that it will be a safe day.

“There’s nothing we have in our training as educators that can prepare us for what happened in Newtown,” Boone said. In fact, she sent a letter to the Newtown superintendent expressing her sympathy and support for the superintendent. “That’s a heavy burden that she will forever carry.”

When asked what else makes up her life ~ besides the big job of being superintendent ~ Boone said, “Faith, family and friends. The three Fs. That’s what else is around me.”

And at 53, Boone said she’s comfortable in her own skin. Part of that, she said, is due to her husband’s sudden death.

“When you’re in your mid-40s and you wake up single … that was a huge wake-up call for me,” Boone said. She started eating healthier, lost 50 pounds and now works out five days a week. And she always makes time for family and friends.

“The time you spend with people is so important,” Boone said. “And that usually doesn’t cost a lot.”

Of course, dating as the superintendent of one of Massachusetts’ larger school districts is a challenge.

Boone said being a public figure in some ways means being on 24/7 and always paying attention to how one conducts oneself in public. That can certainly put a barrier up when it comes to developing relationships.

“It has not been easy for me … dating. I think it’s because of the job I do,” Boone said. That’s why, at parties, she prefers to be introduced as “Melinda,” rather than “Dr. Boone.”

“I’m just like any other person valuing what’s important,” she said.

Boone said, she’s now dating a “wonderful gentleman,” and things seem to be falling into place. In fact, she’s even writing a book about how she survived her husband’s death and come out the other side. It’s called Walking Through the Wilderness After the Storm: The Story of Survival After the Loss of a Spouse, and she hopes to finish and publish it in 2013.

“I am in a good place,” said Boone. “Once my husband didn’t make it past 47, I realized every day and every year is a blessing. I count it a blessing to be 53.”
She said for a while after her husband’s death, she wanted to lie down and die, too. She still recalls the moment she decided to pick up and continue living.
“When I chose life, I chose to live it well.”

Photos by Justin Perry.

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