A New Portal for Allston
At the inauguration of the new building of the Harvard-Allston Education Portal this past Saturday, University president Drew Faust asked the audience, simply: “What is a Harvard?” The question’s unusual formulation came from a short story that a young student in the Ed Portal’s mentoring program had written, and then shared with Faust. The story’s protagonist is a young rabbit—chafing against the expectation that he’d join the family Easter Bunny business—who stumbles across the Harvard campus and wants to know what he’s found, and what it can offer an ambitious local rabbit.
It’s an apt question as the University moves forward with its Allston expansion, and the Ed Portal’s sleek new home at 224 Western Avenue offers one answer. (For a more detailed report on the current state of Allston construction, see “A New Era in Allston,” March-April 2015). “A Harvard” is still a place of students and faculty, classrooms and labs, papers and research. But with the Ed Portal’s newly expanded space and programming, Boston mayor Martin J. Walsh noted in his remarks on Saturday, “A Harvard is within reach for every single person in our city today.”
Previously housed nearby at 175 North Harvard Street, the Ed Portal opened there in 2008 as part of the University’s Cooperation Agreement with the City of Boston. Programming originally centered on a small mentoring project that connected undergraduates with local elementary-school students. In the intervening years—as plans for construction in Allston stalled, shifted, and began again—the Ed Portal’s efforts expanded. Construction on the new space, a renovation of a former Verizon warehouse, began last September. (The same building also houses Harvard’s Ceramics Program.)
Saturday’s event highlighted how the new, 12,000-square-foot Ed Portal space will help fulfill the larger mission encompassed in its motto “Learning without limits.” As Professor Robert A. Lue, the Ed Portal’s faculty director, said in his opening remarks, “No matter what age you are—be you in first grade, be you at the moment of life with your first job, or be you at that first week of your retirement—the Harvard Ed Portal will have an opportunity for you.”
As Lue spoke in the building’s new performance space, the sounds of children playing, and learning, in nearby rooms filtered in through the open glass doors. In the building’s most high-tech classroom, known as the iStudio, students showed off the computer programs they’d designed in the programming language Scratch. On the other side of the building, the bright and airy mentoring space—featuring an art room and science lab, as well as rooms for small-group work—hosted a claymation workshop, drawing stations, science experiments, and more.
Like Lue, other speakers emphasized that the new Ed Portal will also foster learning beyond the elementary-school years. Faust began her remarks by quoting one of her predecessors, Charles William Eliot, who noted in 1909 that education “should be the work of the whole life.” “I think, Faust reflected, “that’s a marvelous way to frame what is the motivating principle, the enduring principle, of this Ed Portal.” The Ed Portal “is where the emerging Harvard campus meets the Allston neighborhood,” she continued. “It’s a place where the same spirit of discovery and partnership that inspires students and faculty in our classrooms and our labs can enliven activities here, can attract the curious and the creative of all ages and interests.”
Programs for adults include an art gallery that will occasionally feature exhibitions of local artists’ work, recreation and health workshops offered through the Center for Wellness, and workforce-development classes. The iStudio will be the home of HarvardX for Allston, a recently launched program that integrates content and courses from HarvardX, the University’s online education initiative, with in-person elements like discussion groups and live lectures. The new performance space, where Saturday’s program took place, will also host a series of lectures by faculty members—and so Knafel professor of music Thomas Kelly [a director of this magazine] closed the program with a brief talk adapted from his popular undergraduate course “First Nights: Five Performance Premieres.” As he spoke about the controversial opening of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Kelly highlighted the capabilities of the new space, moving between a grand piano and a PowerPoint presentation filled with videos of past performances of the work.
Mayor Walsh urged the community to take advantage of the offerings of the newly expanded Ed Portal in his remarks, noting that he wished every neighborhood in the city could have such a resource. Thanking Harvard for the commitment to the city that the building embodies, he acknowledged “that sometimes there’s always little bits of bickering going back and forth.” But, he continued to audience applause, the new center “is one of the things that comes out of bickering.”