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Head of Charlestown High’s alternative education program is nominee for $100K educator award

Sunny Pai, director of Diploma Plus, is among six candidates for the award

Jule Pattison-Gordon
Head of Charlestown High’s alternative education program is nominee for $100K educator award
Sunny Pai, director of Charlestown High’s Diploma Plus program, is among six candidates for the Lawrence W. O’Toole award (Photo: Photo: Courtesy of Sunny Pai)

When Boston Public School students poured into the streets last March to protest against high school budget cuts, one item hanging in the balance was Diploma Plus, an alternative education program for struggling students. Many students praised the program for turning their educational careers around. Now, the Diploma Plus has secured funding for another year, and while catching the interest of a major New England grantmaker.

The Nellie Mae Foundation is considering Diploma Plus Director Sung-Joon “Sunny” Pai as one of six candidates for its Lawrence W. O’Toole award. The honor recognizes “an individual who has demonstrated great leadership in advancing student-centered learning throughout New England,” and comes with a $100,000 grant for advancing the recipient’s work.

The Charlestown High alternative education program serves students at risk of dropping out and helps bring them on track to graduate through individually-paced curriculum, small classes and a strong sense of community. It was at risk of being cut until Liberty Mutual, a long-time partner of Charlestown High, stepped forward to pickup where the BPS funds fell short.

Now the program has the approximately $500,000 needed for next year’s operations. While Diploma Plus does not need the grant to survive, it could open up a world of possibilities, Pai said. All awarded funds would go to support the program.

“There’re many things we dream about, but money is the obstacle,” Pai told the Banner. “The hard part is which thing we choose to spend it on. We have pretty good imaginations here. That [grant] would then remove the funding obstacle.”

Diploma Plus approach

Pai got his first teaching job in Boston at the Fenway High School and then served at the Boston Arts Academy during its founding year.

Joining Diploma Plus added another layer to his teaching philosophy, Pai said. He is quick to say that while the award may single him out for his work with Diploma Plus, the program is very much the work of a community.

“So much of our work is communal, and anything I’m being honored for is coming from other people,” Pai said.

Among the key lessons Pai says he has been learning from DP staff is how to provide “high expectations and high support” — how to present students with rigorous standards of excellence and give them the support and caring community to help them rise to reach those expectations.

“It’s not about ‘no excuses’, it’s not about grit, “ he said “We’ve all been with people who hold us to a high standard, but they do it by breaking us down, being militaristic. This is a different way. It’s just as strict, it’s just a rigorous, but it’s about giving students the vision for what excellence looks like and then watching as they rise to it.”

Instead of a competitive “survival of the fittest” mindset, the program seeks to establish a community where people take care of each other and strive for mutual success, Pai said.

In addition to directing Diploma Plus, Pai teaches algebra and geometry and directs the English Language Learners programs at Charlestown High.

Unexpected educator

Pai never planned on being a teacher. The son of two doctors, he had assumed from a young age that that would be his natural course. But when he entered PreMed at the University of Pennsylvania, he noted some of his classmates had an incredible passion for the subject, something that he just did not feel.

But when Pai tried teaching, something clicked.

“I enjoyed the puzzle about trying to figure out what the best way was to explain something so that people really understand it,” Pai said.

Pai’s introduction to teaching came during his senior year. He joined an internship program in which he was paired with a professor to help design curriculums and teach math and science in a Philadelphia public school. Every Saturday during his senior year, Pai got up early and took a trip downtown, where he worked with middle school students from 8 a.m. to noon.

“I only missed [class] once. I overslept once and that was it,” Pai said. “After that experience, I thought, ‘Huh, if I’m a college kid willing to sacrifice 8-12 on a Saturday morning, there must something about this I really like.”

He went on to get a master’s in education from Harvard and has been in the Boston public schools for 17 years, working as a teacher and principal and now as an administrator.

“Boston Public Schools congratulates Sunny Pai for being recognized by the Nellie Mae Educational Foundation for his work and dedication to the Charlestown High School’s Diploma Plus Program,” BPS said in a statement to the Banner. “This program promotes a culture of growth for students who have struggled with traditional academic models and helps ensure a path for success in college, career, and life.”

Cast your votes

The Lawrence W. O’Toole award is given to the nominee receiving the most public votes, with voting closing at noon on Friday June 3. You can vote on any of the six candidates once by text and once online. Check out the link for details: http://studentsat thecenterhub.org/award-nominees/