Hernandez School suffers deaths of 2 leaders

December 2, 2011
By

Muñiz, Larson pass in same week

 

The Rafael Hernandez School in Egleston Square suffered a double blow in last month with the deaths of its longtime principal and assistant principal Margarita Muñiz and Ken Larson.

Muñiz, who died Nov. 18 after a long battle with cancer, was nationally renowned for her nearly 30 years of leadership of the Hernandez—a pioneering two-way bilingual school where students are taught in both English and Spanish. The school won numerous accolades under her leadership. She was named a Barr Fellow—a prestigious award for “Boston heroes”—in 2007.

In October, Boston Public Schools (BPS) announced plans to open a new two-way bilingual high school named the Margarita Muñiz Academy at the former Agassiz School building at 20 Child St. in JP.

“Our city has lost a true advocate for public education,” Mayor Thomas Menino said in a press statement. “Margarita has left a mark on our city that lives on in her students, and that is the finest legacy of all.”

BPS has named Maria Campanario, a veteran Hernandez School teacher, as an interim principal at the school.

Larson, who died in his sleep Nov. 15, had been at the school for 27 years. His unexpected passing—days after he was quoted in the pages of the Gazette praising Muñiz—resonated locally.

“He became over the years, the more hands-on person at the school,” said Ken Tangvik, a JP resident with two children who graduated from the school.

“He was known for inviting all the teachers to Doyle’s every Friday to reflect on the week,” said Blanca Bermudez, who graduated from the Hernandez in 1989 and now volunteers at the school.

According to people who knew them, the Muñiz and Larson were extremely close professionally and personally.

“If they weren’t working together, they were traveling together. There are pictures of them together on camels or in front of Buckingham Palace,” Tangvik said.

“They were hands-on leaders and best friends,” Bermudez said.

And, by all accounts, they provided students at the Hernandez with stellar educations. Frank Stone, who sent two sons to the Hernandez, said that he and his wife had initially looked at prestigious private schools.

Their initial look at the Hernandez was immediately different, he said, particularly because no one led them around. “There was no guide. All we were doing was observing the education, and there was phenomenal education going on in just about every classroom.”

They were renowned for their advocacy for the school and for Latino school children in Boston. Stone said Muñiz, who started working in BPS as an ESL teacher in 1972 and as a BPS administrator prior to taking over the Hernandez, frequently fought with the school committee, as well as former mayors Kevin White and Ray Flynn.

Tangvik, who has done development work for the youth advocacy nonprofit the Hyde Square Task Force, said he remembers Larson and Muñiz as tireless in their search for foundation funding for their school. “They were at every meeting, fighting for their kids,” he said.

Muñiz, who worked with the Hernandez School throughout her career, became principal when the school was occupying a former car dealership on Columbia Road in Dorchester, Stone told the Gazette. When the school moved to Egleston Square in 1988—after another proposed location was destroyed in an apparent arson fire—the area was rife with gang activity.

“We used to have parent-teacher meetings and, on our way in, get approached by drug dealers,” Stone said. “That was the school building they allotted to the Hernandez.”

State Rep. Liz Malia, who was working for former state Rep. Jim McDonough at the time, told the Gazette that she remembered Muñiz cutting a deal with the local gang, the X-Men: They could use the Hernandez gym to play basketball in the afternoons if they did not deal drugs around the school.

“She was resistant at first. She had just gotten the Hernandez and she was determined that nobody leave a scratch,” Malia said.

Muñiz and Larson came from very different backgrounds. Muñiz was born in Cuba in 1951. At the age of 11, her parents sent her to the United States to escape Fidel Castro’s reign, and she spent time in an orphanage in Louisiana before she and her parents moved to Boston. She became a BPS teacher while completing her degree at Boston University in 1972.

Larson was born in 1952 in North Dakota, where he grew up on a family farm. He graduated from the University of North Dakota at Grand Forks with a degree in speech pathology, and spent many years working as a speech pathologist and then running catering and upholstering businesses in Washington State.

Muñiz was an only child who survived her parents and never married. Larson leaves behind his father and stepmother Wesley and Norma Larson; three siblings, Fred and Jeff Larson and Karen Gorseth; ex-wife Karen Plattes; and many nieces and nephews.

But both are also survived by the Hernandez. Everyone the Gazette spoke to said the two inspired exceptional loyalty among alumni and former Hernandez parents. “They built up a constituency,” Tangvik said.

Bermudez told the Gazette that Larson had recently been discussing opening an after school activities program for Egleston Square teens somewhere in the neighborhood, and that she is planning to pursue that idea.

In a press statement, BPS Superintendent Carol Johnson said, “We are comforted to know Margarita’s legacy lives on in the generation of students she taught and that a future generation of students who will attend the newly created Margarita Muñiz Academy will be the great beneficiaries of her hard work.”

Days before his death, Larson commented on the naming of the new school after Muñiz in the pages of the Gazette. “The honor was too long in coming,” he said.