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‘An Exceptional Job’: Allston Residents and Harvard Students Commend the Ed Portal

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Harvard’s relationship with Boston’s Allston-Brighton neighborhood has been fraught for decades.

The University’s ambitious plans to expand its footprint in the area have been met by resistance at every turn. Recently, the neighborhood has become home to a growing regulatory battle over Harvard’s proposed 900,000-square-foot mixed-use development complex called the Enterprise Research Campus.

Many area residents and civic leaders say Harvard — which owns roughly one-third of the neighborhood’s land — must do more to engage residents in its decision making and support the construction of new affordable housing.

But amid the longstanding tensions, there is one University-run initiative that has been welcomed with open arms: the Harvard Ed Portal.

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The Ed Portal, located in Allston, provides learning opportunities for area residents through an array of educational programs. Its youth program brings Harvard students in as mentors to local public school students, while other initiatives provide resources to adults seeking work.

Truong L. Nguyen ’23, an Ed Portal mentor who works with students one-on-one, said he is tasked with developing the curriculum for elementary and middle school mentees.

“The idea is to not make it into a tutoring session,” said Nguyen, a Crimson Multimedia editor. “We try to stay away a little bit from the academic, more rigid structure of the classroom.”

Hannah B. Thurlby ’23, who mentors elementary and middle school students, said the Ed Portal’s programs are “not meant to feel like school.”

“It’s meant to feel more fun than school,” she said in an October interview. “But we’re still working to get at some of the bigger learning objectives.”

Catherine C. Taing, a Brighton resident who has three children who have taken part in programming at the Ed Portal, said the mentorship sessions allow her kids to communicate and work with older students on projects.

“If I was talking to a parent who has asked for suggestions, Harvard Ed Portal would definitely be one of the recommendations that I would give to them to look into,” Taing said.

Harvard students are paid for their teaching, but the programming is entirely cost-free for all participants.

The Ed Portal’s building includes a large glass entrance with a sleek, new indoor space, complete with an art installation. The building is home to several classroom-like rooms, smaller spaces for one-on-one mentoring sessions, and a science lab.

But students don’t always have to go to the program’s building, located on Western Avenue in Allston. Georgena M. “Gena” Williams ’23 goes directly into Boston and Cambridge public schools to deliver workshops to students as an intern for the Public School Partnerships Program. Some of her workshops teach financial literacy, a subject she said she did not learn in depth at her high school.

“Not a lot of students are educated on financial literacy, and then when they leave the classroom, they’re now expected to take on a huge amount of debt for college, and they’re like, ‘What am I going to do with this?’” she said. “Being in the classroom and teaching financial literacy has made me realize that there is a need for this.”

Williams said her experience working for the Ed Portal has been “beyond words, amazing.”

“The Harvard Ed portal is by far the best way to engage with education here at Harvard because it's directly in the community,” she said.

The Ed Portal also offers arts education at local schools, including a theater storytelling program at the Gardner Pilot Academy.

“Students are not only acting and giggling and having fun, they’re also being able to be creative and write stories and really express themselves in a different way than they do during the school day,” said Ariana C. Fusco, the Gardner Pilot Academy’s partnership manager.

Cindy Marchando — the chair of the Harvard-Allston Task Force, a group of Allston residents and Harvard representatives tasked with advising the University on its development plans in the neighborhood — said that the Ed Portal has done an “exceptional job” in its public school outreach. Marchando said the HATF worked with Harvard to help the Ed Portal vision become a reality — one of the “best benefits” it has “brokered with Harvard,” she said.

Still, she said the Ed Portal’s programs are “underutilized” — in part because some residents may be deterred by the Harvard name, perceiving an affiliation with the school to be out of their reach.

While much attention is given to the Ed Portal’s youth programs, it also offers initiatives aimed at adults, including its workforce development and digital learning programs.

After about nine months of training at the Ed Portal — which included meeting a few times a week for tutoring, resume preparation, and other lessons — Celina P. Descoteaux, a life-long Allston-Brighton resident, completed the Harvard Careers in Construction Program. When she graduated from the program, she got her preferred job in the industry.

Without the career help that she received from the Ed Portal, Descoteaux said it would have been difficult to get hired.

“Nobody can really get in the union unless you know somebody, so it seems,” she said. “So at least I knew Harvard.”

The Allston-Brighton neighborhood has changed dramatically in recent years as housing costs have gone up.

“It used to be the cool place to live,” said Jane McHale, an Allston-Brighton resident who serves as a member of the Ed Portal’s committee on workforce development. “If you didn't have much money, if you were a musician or an artist or whatever, you could live in Allston-Brighton. That doesn’t exist anymore.”

“As a resident and not a construction worker, when you go through Allston throughout all these years, it’s like, wow, you feel like it’s being taken over,” Descoteaux said.

She commended Harvard’s decision to help residents without college degrees attain jobs through the Ed Portal’s programs.

Given Harvard’s lofty development goals in Allston, according to McHale, the school has an obligation to residents.

“I think people generally here expect far more of its universities — and most especially Harvard as the wealthiest university in the world — to really make this community outstanding,” she said.

—Crimson staff writers James R. Jolin and Maribel Cervantes contributed reporting.

—Staff writer Michal Goldstein can be reached at michal.goldstein@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @bymgoldstein.

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