Three months before he graduated from the Carroll School of Management with a degree in accounting in 2007, Mark O’Connor (pictured, left) decided on a career in special education. He enrolled in the Lynch School’s M.Ed. program in severe special needs, which provided the opportunity to become a teaching assistant at the Campus School at Boston College.
His dramatic change of plans, he says, “freed me to see that I wasn’t the best accounting student and that my real passion had been in front of me all along.”
O’Connor had spent four years as an undergraduate volunteer for the Campus School, which educates students aged 3 to 21 with complex physical and developmental disabilities. As graduation approached, he realized the experience had changed his life.
“I not only loved my relationships with the students but also the work of teaching,” he recalls.
O’Connor taught for a year at the Campus School after he completed the M.Ed., then left in 2010 to teach at the William E. Carter School, a Boston public school on Northampton Street in the South End/Lower Roxbury reserved for students aged 13 to 21 with severe special needs and complex health needs.
He returned to his alma mater in 2014 as an aspiring principal fellow at the Lynch Leadership Academy, a program run by Boston College’s Carroll School of Management and the Lynch School to prepare educators to become informed, highly skilled instructional and executive leaders in high-need schools and communities. As a fellow, he spent a year at the Henderson K-12 Inclusion School in Dorchester developing his management skills while honing his instructional expertise with help from a Lynch Leadership Academy mentor.
O’Connor returned to the Carter School as its principal in 2015, and started putting into practice some of the ideas and methods he’d been exposed to in the previous year.
Working closely with the Carter’s teaching staff, physical and behavioral therapists, and families, for example, O’Connor led an effort to collect and analyze daily data on students’ progress—and challenges—to improve instruction for individual students and the school as a whole. The initiative, he says, has “completely changed the game for us.” He reports that students now better meet their learning goals, particularly around a “school-wide priority” to enhance communication skills.
O’Connor has also started laying plans to expand the Carter, which is bordered on three sides by Northeastern University and the fourth by the Southwest Corridor Park.
Even in its nascent stages, the scheme is ambitious: it includes rebuilding the school to double its size and installing a therapeutic pool. It has also attracted attention: Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh pointed to the Carter School during his second State of the City address in January, describing it as “a compassionate gem of a school community.”
Meanwhile, O’Connor has trained his attention on making the Carter the best school and community program it can be.
For one, he’s brought young people from the surrounding community into its classrooms, partnering with two Boston high schools and area colleges to pair volunteers with Carter School students for one-on-one activities.
“We want to increase our students’ inclusion in the community,” says O’Connor, “and show people how amazing this work can be.”
He says he is applying a “holistic” approach to his work at the Carter. “That’s something that has driven me from my time at BC. It’s really about looking at the whole picture and determining what’s going to create the greatest outcome for our students."
The Lynch Leadership Academy built on an idea that was central to his undergraduate and graduate education at Boston College: to hold a high standard of equity for students. “It’s not good enough to talk about it,” he says. “We need to show it with our actions and do all we can for our most marginalized students.”
(Top, clockwise from left) Carter School Principal Mark O’Connor, Boston School Committee Member Michael O’Neill, Carter School teacher Kimberly Phillips Kulasekaran, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, Carter School paraprofessional Betty Jean Marks, Boston Public Schools Superintendent Tommy Chang, State Treasurer Deborah Goldberg, and Carter School students Skyla Elliot, Crystal Roldan Garcia, and Eden Charles. Photo courtesy: Massachusetts Treasurer's office