BC High officials outline middle school expansion

Earlier this month BC High announced that it would add a seventh and eighth grade division to its existing high school on Morrissey Boulevard. The school will open its doors to those students in September of 2007, with each grade expected to enroll 100 students each. The move responds to a demand for Jesuit education in the middle school grades, the school says.

This week, the Reporter sat down for a roundtable discussion with BC High President William Kemeza, Principal Steve Hughes, Director of Admissions Michael Brennan, and former teacher and Dorchester native, Mary Madden who currently works in the Admissions Department.

Reporter: What's been the reaction so far to the news that you will add seventh and eighth grades?

Mary Madden: It's been very positive. We've been getting many calls from parents and people looking for applications, people looking to get on a list to have them sent out.

R: How did it become clear that there was a desire for seventh and eighth grades at BC High?

William Kemeza: A couple of board members had been saying for years that 'You're missing out on an opportunity, certainly to bring in more city kids by not being able to grab them at a time when a lot of their families are making decisions about schools.'

We listened, but we didn't really move on it, but then we did a survey, an enrollment study, again our primary concern was to make sure we were getting academically talented students, but we also wanted to try to get more kids, not only from the city of Boston, but from other urban areas…

We started to get some background noise from families, suggesting to us that there was a desire out there for us to run a lower division…we did a survey to see whether or not this was a viable interest on the part of families and whether it fit our mission and whether we thought we could do it well, and by and large, we certainly heard from parents that they were interested.

Steve Hughes: You can sort of break it down into two parts. The external zeitgeist that Bill was referring to, but there's also that kind of internal noise that we began to unpack.

We looked at the issues that young people face today at 12 and 13, and those are issues that my generation were looking at at 16 and 17. It was almost as if we were playing catch up in the ninth grade on some of the issues that we would try to help young men cope with.

Cognitively, we feel that the existence of the 7th and 8th grade allows us to prepare students that much better for college.

R: Will the addition of 7th and 8th grades open the doors of BC High to students that perhaps would not have gained acceptance as 9th graders?

Michael Brennan: I think what the 7th and 8th grade does is it will take pressure off of students to jump right in and perform at the 9th grade level, that has become so important. What it's going to do is allow students, regardless of their background, because we'll have students who score off the charts on exams and struggle for various reasons, I think it's going to take the pressure off some students to learn what BC High is and then set them up for success down the road.

R: How will the two additional grades affect the high school curriculum?

Hughes: It will certainly allow some students to go in to move ahead at a quicker rate, an 8th grader may very well be able to do 9th grade math or languages, so you move them ahead. In a broad range of students, given particular challenges … having a larger school allows you the freedom to have all those options.

In terms of the rigor of the secondary curriculum, my sense is that there will be some adjustments there.

R: Do you have a target demographic make up in mind for the 7th and 8th grades?

Hughes: I think it will look an awful lot like the high school does now.

Madden: One thing that comes through many times in telephone calls and conversations especially with people in Dorchester is that their kids are in schools that end in grade six, and they want them to come to BC High for ninth grade, so now in that three-year span, they're in three different schools.

I've had many people say, "I'd love to get my son in there, I want him to go anyway, to avoid having him change from here to here to here."

R: Is there a difference in what makes a prospective 7th grader a fit for BC High and a 9th grader?

Brennan: There's a common trait, hard working, curious, first to help out a fellow student. These are common themes in the recommendations we get. I don't think those things necessarily emerge in September of the eighth grade year, or April of the seventh grade year - you were like that when you were in third grade, just in a different context.