Dot High story called a lesson
All is silent in the old Dorchester High building. The clanging of lockers, the squeals of fresh gossip, the hourly bells, and the shuffling of feet as students move from class to class will begin again in earnest come September. For now, the solitary footfalls of Principal Jack Leonard are the only sounds that stir in the aging building.
"I'm excited for the kids to come back," he said with a smile.
Despite the silence, or maybe because of it, this summer has been a busy one for Leonard and Lisa Gonsalves, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. Over the last two years, Leonard and Gonsalves have worked together writing and editing a history of Dorchester High. Their finished product, New Hope for Urban Schools: Cultural Reform, Moral Leadership, and Community Partnership, was published early this summer.
"The whole country can learn from this story," Gonsalves said. "The main message is a school just can't fix itself. You have to form partnerships."
The authors examine the failure of the old Dorchester High and point to the inability of the school to form those partnerships with the community as the major reason why the school continued to fail.
"The reason we wrote the book was because we thought it would be applicable for city schools across the country. City schools don't have enough money and they are up against challenging problems. Unless community leaders team up and get serious there is not going to be any progress," said Leonard.
Dorchester High was dismantled in 2002. The school transitioned into three separate learning communities within one building: TechBoston Academy, Noonan Business Academy, and the Academy of Public Service. The hope was to create smaller learning communities where students would receive more attention.
Leonard, who began his teaching career as a science teacher at Dorchester High, took over as principal of the Noonan Business Academy. Last October, MCAS test scores confirmed what many were already believing: the new school was a growing success. Students who received either "proficient" or "advanced" on the test in math increased by 38 percentage points and English scores went up 33 points.
Leonard and Gonsalves both point to the public private partnerships that the Academy nurtured as key to the success. Corporations such as Verizon and Sovereign Bank, as well as educational institutions, such as Gonsalves's UMass-Boston, have changed the environment within the school.
"Key partners have not only put money into the school but they've also paid attention and advocated for the school," said Leonard.
"We're sending ten student teachers to work in the complex this year," said Gonsalves.
Gonsalves teaches one of her UMass classes in the high school.
"If you aren't student teaching here, then you have to come here anyway for class," she said.
Their study, though, focuses less on the present success of the new academy and instead explains the history that led to the downward slide of Dorchester High from the 1950's through the 1990's within the context of the city's struggles.
The authors explain how events outside the school building, such as the notorious banking committee B-BURG in Boston, often had a devastating effect on the education of students inside the classrooms. The book maintains that establishing partnerships, such as the current partnership with Sovereign Bank, where many of the top students intern, is important to building an environment of achievement within the school.
The book uses its own history to make recommendations on reform in other urban public schools. Gonsalves and Leonard use a broad historic lens to plead their case. Unlike many other case studies, which focus on specific short educational initiatives within schools, New Hope for Urban Schools studies the struggles of Dorchester High in the fifty years before it finally shut down. This historical perspective is especially fitting for the school.
Although Dorchester High is now closed, the three new small schools continue to occupy the space. In the entrance to the old Dorchester High, now renamed the Dorchester Educational Complex, are dusty plaques dedicated to the brave service of Dorchester High students who died in the Civil War and the Spanish-American War.
Leonard jokes that the school system hasn't given him the money to move them. With all the other changes Leonard has supervised in the building, one has to question his true dedication to remodeling the ancient lobby. Leonard has built the current success of the Academy from the earlier lessons of the now defunct Dorchester High.