Hundreds gathered at the Brookline Teen Center on April 3 to celebrate the lifetime achievements of Dr. Robert Sperber, former superintendent of Brookline Public Schools and decorated professor and administrator at Boston University School of Education.

“There was much to celebrate,” says Anne Turner, organizer for the event. “Long lines of people who worked for and with him, mentees, and admirers came wanting to give thanks for his wisdom and many innovative and lasting programs that he’s put forth over the years. I’m told that his professional work is known nationally and in some cases even internationally.”

Attendees were treated to an hour-long film presentation entitled “Dr. Robert I. Sperber: An Oral History” directed by independent filmmaker Bob Nesson. At points during the film, the packed auditorium erupted into cheers and applause in recognition of the landmark changes that Sperber had helped to steer in improving the quality and our school system and the state of school funding. His tale is an extensive one.

Sperber’s career in education has spanned well over half a century. He began his career as an elementary school teacher in 1952, while serving as a consultant for various foundations and universities. Ten years later, as assistant superintendent to the Pittsburgh public school system, he had desegregated the teaching staff after initiating a policy of “conscious preferment,” which aimed at hiring and recruiting black teachers.

He then brought his reformist know-how with him to Brookline in 1964 where, again, he faced a number of unique challenges in a community where, at the time, funding that disproportionately favored higher income schools created unequal learning outcomes.

The 18 years he was Superintendent in Brookline—throughout the 60s and 70s—were some of the most innovative and reform-focused years in the past century as it relates to education. Federal interest in collaborating with school systems had peaked, funding was increasing, and the Boston public school system had been desegregated by the mid-1970s. Sperber was at the center of the excitement, nimbly making deals and raising money for a whole host of initiatives and programs, most of which still exist today. They include:

  • The Brookline Education Foundation
  • Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity (METCO)
  • Brookline Early Education Project (BEEP)
  • Educational Collaborative (EDCO)
  • Facing History and Ourselves
  • Brookline Extended Day Advisory Council (BEDAC)

Among the many successful programs that have become pillars in the Brookline public school system, BEEP and METCO are offered as examples for the need to invest in early-childhood education. BEEP began as a research project that followed 285 families—a third of which were recruited from the Heath Bromley Housing Project in Jamaica Plain—as they received social and medical assistance in conjunction with an education from the Brookline Public School system through METCO. The children’s progress, through elementary school and into high school, was extensively monitored. At the 25-year conclusion of the study, the findings established a firm connection between early intervention and academic success.

Retiring, then, from the superintendence in 1982, Sperber embarked on twenty-year career at Boston University alongside then-President John Silber. When the university took over the Chelsea public school system in 1989, Sperber was responsible for brokering a deal with the state that ultimately resulted in the building of seven new schools and the John Silber Early Learning Center—a project that was brought under budget at roughly $116 million. Corruption, poverty, crime, and unbridled favoritism had driven the city to the point of political economic collapse by the 1980s. According to the final annual report issued to the Massachusetts Legislature in 2008 evaluating progress made under the BU/Chelsea partnership, the Chelsea school system has met and continues to reach many of its long-term goals spelled out at the onset of the partnership.

His legacy of battling discrimination and helping to implement and fund raise for programs such as METCO, which gave low-income students from under-performing schools the opportunity to attend high-learning schools, and BEEP, which provides children under the age of 3 with early childhood education, has caused him to be among the most admired and loved figures in Brookline and across the many communities he’s touched.

“It was an honor and personally rewarding to help create an event where so many people who loved and appreciated Bob’s varied and long list of contributions and accomplishments in Brookline, at BU, in Boston, and Chelsea could come together,” says Turner.

After the film, commendations were offered from the State Senate, the Governor’s Office, the Treasurer, House of Representatives, and the Board of Selectmen. Representatives from each body expressed their admiration and thanks through various gifts.

And the congratulations didn’t stop there. Many stuck around after the two-hour-long event to have a personal word, a handshake, or a hug from the man who touched many lives, whose contributions and achievements in education are immeasurable.

“I met Bob relatively recently, serving together at the Brookline Community Foundation and later on the Brookline Extended Day Advisory Board,” says Turner. “But knew immediately that I could learn from his knowledge of Brookline and the field of education, his wisdom, conviction to work toward social justice, and frank but kind feedback. He’s become a dear friend.”

By Tanner Stening