Meg Campbell
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Meg Campbell

Executive Director, Codman Academy Charter Public School

To Meg Campbell, a school isn't just a school. It's a "lever for community transformation." And, as co-founder and Executive Director of the Codman Academy Charter Public School in Boston, she has implemented many innovative ideas for bringing her passion for her community and her passion for education into alignment.

You might say that her entire career has been focused on improving communities. A native of southern California, she first came to Boston to attend Harvard University. Although her intent was eventually to become an elementary school principal, Meg was told by an advisor that she was "wasting her education" at Harvard, which at the time did not allow students to take education courses.

At the same time, "I realized I had a lot to learn cross-culturally," she says. So, she began her career as a community organizer for ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), the now-defunct organization dedicated to helping low- and moderate-income families work together to make their communities a better place.

Together with her then-husband, Meg worked in Arkansas, Texas, and Louisiana as director of the training department, helping low-income families to organize. From there, the couple, now with a daughter in tow, transferred to rural Vermont, where Meg's focus was on rural community organizing. While there, she also headed up Newbury Design for Education, a volunteer group whose mission was to re-envision the local elementary school.

Becoming an Advocate for Boston Public Schools

It was an experience that would serve Meg well when she returned to Boston. By this time, she was the mother of two daughters, and she became "very, very involved" at the Rafael Hernandez school, a bilingual school in the Boston neighborhood of Dorchester that her children attended. "At Newbury Design for Education, I was involved with by bringing diverse groups together, to see what could a school do, what could a school do for a community, design principles, and so forth," she says. "With the leadership of principal Margarita Muniz, we were able to do that with our school."

Meg's job at the time was senior research analyst for the Massachusetts Senate Health Care Committee. She flirted with the idea of making public health her career, but her involvement in the Rafael Hernandez school inspired her to get a master's degree in education instead. "Research shows that the simplest predictor of how kids will perform in school is their socio-economic status. So it's important not only to improve schools, but also to really build the community," she says. "I decided to get a master's in education because I'm interested in organizing and using the school as a lever for community transformation."

Laying the Groundwork for a Groundbreaking School

Founding Codman Academy was still far over the horizon for Meg, who remained committed to pursuing a career in elementary education. Working for the Boston Public Schools district superintendent, Diana Lam, in 1988 she became "the first-ever school restructuring specialist, way before anybody was thinking about any of this stuff," as she describes it. "My job was to work with teachers and parents to re-envision what schools should be and together develop a new design."

When Diana, by then her friend and mentor, took a job as superintendent in Chelsea, a distressed city outside Boston, Meg went with her. "That's when I became interested in high schools, mainly because the high school was so bad, people had just given up," she recalls. "I thought it was a little early to be giving up on kids. Fourteen-year-olds are just like four-year-olds except they have hormones—otherwise, they have much in common."

Now a single mother, Meg returned to Harvard to see whether she could find a way to juggle studying for a doctorate along with a full-time job and parenting her two girls. She spotted a notice for a position as director of a collaborative between Outward Bound and Harvard Graduate School of Education and became intrigued. "I had gone to this amazing summer camp run by the American Youth Foundation every summer—a values-based camp focused on character development and leadership development, so I intuitively understood Outward Bound," she says.

Meg became executive director of Expeditionary Learning while also a lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Education. She was able to apply the ideas and best practices of Outward Bound to Expeditionary Learning during the nine years that she ran the organization, expanding its reach to 130 schools and growing.

A Holistic Approach to Education

By 1999, Meg had been living in Dorchester for more than 15 years, her children were grown, and she was feeling restless. "I was having a midlife crisis," she confides. "I had always wanted to run a school, so I thought, 'Where is the greatest need?'"

She didn't have to look far. According to Meg, data revealed that the only two high schools in Dorchester were the schools least chosen by parents in the entire city system. "I have a lot of respect for parents," she says. "Even though I'm not a high school person, I thought, 'That's the greatest need.'"

Fortunately, the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993 enabled the establishment of charter schools in the state—that is, public schools that are given freedom in academic programming, organization, and mission, while at the same time being held to a higher level of accountability than district schools.

Meg set about looking for a space in which to establish a charter school. Given her interest in health issues, it seemed natural to her to partner with the innovative Codman Square Community Health Center and its CEO, Bill Walczak. "I didn't realize we would be the first school inside a community health center in the world," she says. "I didn't even think about it. It just made sense to me."

To Meg, who describes herself as a "very holistic thinker," one reason the site made perfect sense was that she saw many of the issues faced in urban neighborhoods as unaddressed mental health issues. "If untreated, mental health issues express themselves as community or domestic violence, high-risk behavior resulting in sexually transmitted diseases, or obesity leading to diabetes and hypertension," she says. Not only that, but, "At that point in time, there were some new models coming out where teachers were supposed to be everything," she says. "I have a lot of respect for mental health professionals, and I feel it's a different skill bank. It's not really fair to ask teachers to be therapists. They can be guides, but therapy is a different gig."

Codman Square Health Center signed on as a key partner, and Codman Academy Charter Public School opened its doors in 2001.

Not Your Average, Run-of-the-Mill School

Meg's vision was to keep the school small, and while it has grown from 32 to 145, it has retained that feeling of intimacy and close connection between students and the school's 32 faculty members. From the start, it was clear that this was not a traditional high school. "I was interested in a hybrid of nurturing progressive education but also maintaining very high standards—a very holistic approach," says Meg. "I also was very interested in how to jolt students to make it a completely different experience, so it isn't high school as we know it."

For one thing, students are expected to do chores. "Living in rural areas, I was very impressed with the level of responsibility kids growing up on farms have," Meg says. "They're running major equipment, and if you don't get up at four in the morning and milk the cow, that cow's going to keel over." So, the students at Codman Academy have tasks such as setting up lunch and cleaning up afterward. "It's like a summer camp in that way," she explains. "You own the territory. You feel as if you're needed."

In fact, students do attend camp every year as part of their curriculum, along with the entire faculty. "You get a lot of leadership experience through camp," says Meg. "Everyone just loves it."

The school also places an emphasis on partnerships with other institutions—including the Foundation's Community Advisory Group, which welcomed Codman as a new partner in 2011. Along with other respected non-profit leaders throughout the city of Boston, Meg's passion and unique approach will be instrumental in improving high school graduation rates in inner city Boston. Another key partnership for Codman Academy is with the Huntington Theatre Company, a leading professional theater company in Boston. "The kids don't audition and aren't going to a theater school," Meg explains. "But I've always felt that the arts are central to education. Everybody should have that training of finding your voice and claiming and speaking it, whether you're audience or actor."

As a result of this partnership, Codman Academy was honored with the Commonwealth Award, the state's highest award for art and culture. Codman Academy is the only public school to receive the award.

Most importantly, Codman Academy does whatever it can to help students and families realize their dreams. "There's no question that the kids have to have dreams—and even more importantly, so do their parents, in particular the moms," says Meg. Codman Academy staff meets with the parents of all incoming students to ask just that. "The mothers of the city have huge dreams for their children, and it's our job to help them realize it. Not our dreams, their dreams," she says. "What I'm proudest of is that we profoundly respect the dreams of our families."

Where the Personal and the Professional Intersect

As a mother herself, Meg loves spending time with her daughters and their families, as well as her extended family. A poet, essayist, and writing teacher, she also continues to write. She belongs to a poetry writing group of women living in Dorchester, Dot Four, and her second book of poetry, More Love, is soon to be published by Midmarch Arts Press. She is also a blogger for The Huffington Post.

But even in her off-hours, Meg remains a vigorous community activist. "I just came back from an interesting conference in New York City on placemaking by the Project for Public Spaces," she laughs, "and I saw that some people are called 'zealous nuts' for their community. I guess I am a zealous nut for Dorchester."

Toward that end, she is active in advocating that the Boston Public Library build a new Uphams Corner branch library, and she is leading an effort to build a new "green" wing to the Codman Square Health Center, which will also create new and shared space for the school. "Our dream is to build a space that serves the whole community," she declares. "If you love what you're doing, you keep doing it. To me, it all just goes together."

How fortunate for her Dorchester community that she loves what she does.

Featured in our November 2011 E-Newsletter. Read the full issue here.