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The Education of Mike Rubin

Mike RubinThe principal of East Boston High School and Tufts graduate has come far but stayed close to his roots.


The 7:45 a.m. bell has rung, and so begins another school day at East Boston High, an inner city school that is home to one of the most diverse, and challenging, student bodies in the state. But those expecting a blackboard jungle of disaffected youth and broken down facilities can think again. On a Friday morning in early fall, the hallways are quiet, the kids running to get to class are polite, and Principal Mike Rubin (A'78) would have it no other way.

At 6-foot-four and dressed in a sharp grey suit, it's hard to ignore Rubin as he strolls down the hallways on his morning walk-through, as he's done every day for the past 30 years. "Make that disappear," he says to students, indicating cell phones, hats, soda cans. He occasionally stoops to pick the odd cellophane wrapper off the floor himself. A "safe, orderly building," he says, is important.

"With all the things that our kids have got to do, with meeting rigorous [state and federal] benchmarks—that can't happen if there's no order, if there's chaos all around you. But you have to work it," he says.

Meeting those benchmarks is a challenge. Of the students at East Boston High School, 53 percent speak a first language that is not English, with 23 percent speaking little or none. The school is 73 percent low income, compared with 29 percent for the rest of the state, and 17 percent special needs. But the Massachusetts Department of Education indicators tell only half the story.

"It was always in me that I had to give back."

— Mike Rubin

"Because our doors are open to everybody, we do have some tough kids here," says Rubin. "In the city, because of all the problems that our kids encounter—some of them might have mothers and fathers who are on crack, some are gang involved, some are homeless—it makes learning more difficult."

Daunting problems, but beating the odds is something Rubin has been doing all his life.

"My father never went to school a day in his life, he signed his name with an 'X,'" says Rubin, who grew up in Memphis, Tenn., surrounded in deep poverty and widespread illiteracy. His mother received an eighth-grade education. His parents died within two years of one another, leaving Rubin an orphan at age 11. He then went to live with his aunt, and when she died four years later, it was off to the Taft School, a boarding school in Watertown, Conn. Rubin had been identified by A Better Chance (ABC), a program that places and sponsors "minority kids in prep schools."

"How does a little black boy from the Deep South end up going to a Taft, going to a Tufts—in my opinion, two of the greatest institutions in this country?" asks Rubin. "It was always in me that I had to give back."

Realizing a Vision

As principal of East Boston High for the past five years and assistant headmaster and basketball coach for the previous 24, Rubin has spent a career giving back, the foundation of which he says was laid at Tufts.

"Tufts opened my horizons; it allowed me to meet people from all walks of life."

His time at Tufts also introduced Rubin to the world of urban youth and education.

"When I started at Tufts, I worked down at the West Medford Community Center, tutoring kids, and I do a lot of that kind of work now," says Rubin, who still coaches and referees basketball at the Hyde Park and Roxbury YMCAs.

His work at Tufts made Rubin realize he had found his calling. What was meant to be a one-year hiatus before starting law school turned into a 30-year career. After graduating from Tufts, where he majored in history and minored in education, Rubin took a job as a middle school teacher and junior varsity boys basketball coach at East Boston High. There, says Rubin, "I fell in love."

The rest is history, a history in which he has witnessed a lot of changes in education.

"Thirty years ago in a classroom, I ran my own show. There's more accountability now, and that's all because of No Child Left Behind," says Rubin, referring to the education legislation passed in 2001. "It's raised the standards. Our job is a lot tougher now, but the whole accountability level? I'm for it."

Mike Rubin

As Assistant Headmaster for the first 24 of his 29 years at EBHS, Rubin was in charge of discipline, and it is something he still works hard on. "Learning can't happen if there's chaos all around us," says Rubin.

Rubin adds that the rigorous state and federal benchmarks the school must now meet are especially challenging given how diverse it has become.

"In the last ten years there's been a significant demographic shift. When I started, the school was predominantly Italian-American, and the African-Americans were bussed in from the other side of town: Dorchester, Roxbury, Mattapan. It is now about 55 percent Hispanic, and the Hispanic population and Latino population come from all over—Peru, El Salvador, Mexico: everywhere."

"We had a 19-year old who arrived yesterday who speaks little to no English, and this young lady will be placed in ESL 1. A year from today that student is going to take the MCAS," says Rubin, referring to the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exam, which measures reading, writing and math ability.

Federal mandate states that all children reach proficiency by 2014. With East Boston High currently at 50 percent, Rubin admits, "We've got some work to do." (continued)

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Profile written by Leslie Macmillan for Tufts University

Photos by Melody Ko, University Photographer

This story originally ran on Oct. 8, 2007.