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A Million Reasons to Go to School

National Perspective | Education

Besides a cash donation believed to be largest to a public school, a philanthropist donates time and know-how.

May 12, 1998|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BOSTON — A few weeks ago, Dorchester was merely this city's worst public high school. It had the most violence, the highest levels of truancy and the largest dropout rate. Only a fraction of students performed at grade level, and the 950-student institution was teetering on the brink of de-accreditation. But a $1-million gift from a former student-teacher there has transformed Dorchester High into the city's richest public school.

In the eyes of benefactor Pamela Trefler, the brick fortress also has become a model for how a new generation of civic-minded philanthropists might revive public education. She and her husband, Cambridge software magnate Alan Trefler, picked the $1-million sum because "it was a nice, round number, and because it made a statement." That statement, said Trefler, was: "Come on, people, get up and do something. This is happening all over the United States. The schools are crumbling. And we can fix them."

Robert N. Belle, the headmaster at Dorchester High, agreed. "I've been to Chicago, I've been to Oakland, I've been to Compton," he said. "This could be any other school. The difference is, we have someone like Ms. Trefler."

As an investment banker for almost 20 years, Trefler, 46, accumulated a substantial fortune. Her wealth increased exponentially six years ago when she married Trefler, who owns about $377 million worth of stock in the company he founded, Pegasystems Inc.

Rather than doling out dollars to cultural causes or to the disease du jour, the Treflers set up a foundation aimed at improving urban education. "We wanted to send the message out that these public schools are not a dead end," Pamela Trefler said. "They are worth investing in--and I don't think we can afford not to."

Private high schools routinely receive generous endowments, but the Trefler grant is believed to be the first individual donation of its magnitude made to an urban public high school. A $10-million grant from the Walter Annenberg Foundation helps a variety of schools here--including Dorchester, the high school that serves the city's poorest residents.

Strapped for funds for "extras," such as computer labs or cultural enrichment programs, many public schools in wealthy areas have turned to aggressive fund-raising, said Stacy Palmer, managing editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy in Washington, D.C.

"It's way beyond bake sales," Palmer said. "But nothing like that is happening in poorer schools, the ones that actually need these kinds of million-dollar donations."

The Trefler endowment also is exceptional because it mandates an ambitious restructuring of the school where Pamela Trefler student-taught five years ago as a graduate student at Harvard. In a partnership with the University of Massachusetts-Boston, where she earned her bachelor's degree, the high school will be broken into a cluster of "small learning communities," schools-within-a-school that focus on public service, engineering and entrepreneurship. Trefler hopes the school will become a laboratory for teaching methods.

She traces her passion for education to her father, the first member of his family to go to college. He went on to flourish in the oil business, work that constantly moved his family. Born in the San Francisco Bay area, Pamela Trefler attended 33 schools around the world before finishing high school in Walnut Creek, Calif.

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Her college career was no less transient. She started out at Iowa State University, then transferred to San Francisco State. She said she lost track of all the colleges she attended after that.

The Treflers' wealth was guaranteed when Pegasystems went public last year. Pamela Trefler did treat herself to new curtains, but rather than moving to an urban chateau, she set out to salvage Dorchester High. One recent week, she said, she worked 100 hours, much of it at the school.

"She's here at 7 a.m. [to] 10 p.m.," Belle said. "Pam is an unusual person. She's been involved in the school system. She saw what worked and what didn't work. There are so many people out there who really don't believe in our kids. Pam believes in them."

That puts Trefler among a new breed of what she calls "venture philanthropists." Their gifts carry responsibilities as well as risks. "When we donate money, we don't just write checks and walk away," she said. "We bring our services into the school, along with the money."

And money begets more money, noted senior class president Kisha Moore, at 17 a booster of what is known as "Team Trefler." Until recently, her school was "a dumping pot, a place where they sent the kids who were suspended anywhere else," Moore said.

"Two months ago," she went on, "you had the superintendent saying he wasn't going to put any resources into Dorchester. Then Pam steps in, and suddenly it's like, 'Oh yeah, we'll help out.' "

Trefler's generosity has touched Moore personally. Reared by a single mother, often in homeless shelters, Moore confessed to Trefler that she couldn't afford a dress for her senior prom. Trefler took her shopping. Her dress is amethyst, with lace trim. "It's gorgeous," Moore beamed.

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