Photograph by Matt Kalinowski
School in a Mill
An alum runs a school in the same mill where his great grandmother made shoes.
After Nicholas Leonardos, Ed.M.’99, was offered the job last summer as executive director of a charter school in Lowell, Massachusetts, one of the first things his family said to him was, “It was meant to be.”
Not only had Leonardos been teaching and leading schools since the early 1990s, but he had a close personal tie to the building where the school was housed: his great-grandmother, Constantina Niarchos, had worked there in a shoe factory 100 years earlier.
“I knew that both of my grandparents were born in Lowell and that my great-grandmother had worked in a mill, but I had no idea which building,” he says. Luckily, one of his relatives did. “My father’s cousin is 92 and grew up in Boston in the South End,” he says. “He now lives in Boulder, Colorado, but we visit in the summer and through the magic of Facebook, we stay connected. After I took this job, he sent me a Face-book message saying he remembered her working in Mill 5. The Lowell Community Charter Public School is in Mill 5 and 6. It’s pretty amazing.”
Although Constantina died before Leonardos was born, he remembers hearing about her, mostly from his grandmother Evangeline (Constan-tina’s daughter). He learned that she had been a mill worker, most likely at the Appleton Manufacturing Company, working on the part of the shoe that becomes the tongue. He also learned that by 1940, Constantina was living with Evangeline and her family, including Leonardos’ father, Gregory, in Cambridge, where Evangeline’s husband (also Nicholas) owned a bar.
During a visit to his office at the charter school, in a renovated space with high ceilings that has kept the integrity of the mill, Leonardos pulls out Constantina’s passport, which he discovered in his father’s home after he passed away a little more than a year ago. Handwritten in tiny script, the passport is hard to make out, but some details are legible: Born in 1878, Constantina emigrated from Greece to Lowell to work. At the time, Lowell was one of the country’s largest textile centers. Constantina likely moved to the city, about 30 miles north of Boston, during a second wave of immigrants that included workers from Poland, Portugal, and her country.
It’s a story that many of his 815 students in the K–8 school can relate to: 97 percent are minority and 49 percent are English language learners. During class visits, about three-quarter of the hands routinely go up when he asks students how many have family members from other countries.
That’s why during those visits he openly shares his own background, including the fact that his dad only spoke Greek until he started kindergarten, that his grandparents were born in Lowell, and that his great-grandmother worked in the same building.
“Every teacher on their door has an ‘all about me’ page listing things they like to do, pets, that sort of thing,” he says. He has one, too, showing pictures of his family and Greece. It includes a photo of Constantina. “It’s a great connection, the fact that this building was a mill employing mostly women. Now it’s a school with girls, boys too. When I visit classrooms, I bring my great-grandmother’s passport. I talk about Lowell being a gateway city” — a place immigrants flock to for work and to start a new life.
It certainly was a gateway for Constantina, who helped add to the growth of Lowell, just as Leonardos is adding to the growth of his charter school.
“What drives me is making sure the kids have ac-cess to excellent instruction,” he says, “and empowering teachers to make good choices for the school.” It seems to be working. After some bumpy years, the school is now level 1, the highest designation a school can get from the state. “The fact that it’s on a pretty good track now is a source of pride about the school’s history and where we’re at,” he says. “It’s exciting.”