Harbor School principal bullish on school’s future - Blake sees good progress despite out-of-class issues

Out of habit, Leah Blake still gets up at the break of dawn. A Dorchester native who grew up on Ashmont Hill, she took the bus to Wayland as part of the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity (METCO) program. Now she commutes from Brockton to the Harbor Middle School in Fields Corner, where she is the principal.

“This community, especially Ashmont Hill and nearby, played a really big role in my life, in terms of extracurricular activities, my friends, the church,” she told the Reporter in a recent sit-down. “So I wanted to make sure I gave back to schools in the neighborhood to make sure students have an option available for them that is as good as the suburbs. So I dedicate myself to these kids in the community so they don’t have to get on a bus like I did at 5:30 in the morning and go outside the city.”

Blake, whose parents are from Trinidad, recalls swimming at the Dorchester YMCA, enjoying synchronized swimming at the Dorchester House, and attending services at the Dorchester Temple Baptist Church.

A graduate of Boston College with a degree from Lesley University and a certificate from Simmons College, Blake has worked for the Boston Public Schools for a decade and was appointed principal earlier this year.

At the Harbor Middle School, students in grades 6 through 8 participate in what’s called a “full-inclusion model” in which students with and without disabilities work together in the classroom. The school has had its share of ups and downs in the last year.

In Dec. 2010, the previous principal, who had been at the school for five months, was removed by Superintendent Carol Johnson. The decision came after the principal had a sharp and defensive e-mail exchange with a parent of a special needs student.

And just a few weeks ago, a teacher’s assistant was accused of improper activity with a 14-year-old student. A second incident involving the assistant, LaShawn Hill, allegedly occurred at the King K-8 School, according to city officials. Hill, who has pleaded not guilty to charges of lewd and lascivious conduct, has been ordered to stay away from the Harbor Middle School, while school officials have sent intervention teams into the schools.

“It was a feeling of shock and devastation,” Blake said of the time when she learned of the allegations. “Shock and devastation. Because you just never ever think that something to that magnitude would happen in your school or you know, with one of your students. And so we just immediately reacted and followed the proper protocols, in terms of who we had to report to and in terms of the police being involved. But it was shock and devastation.”

Mayor Thomas Menino has sought to be supportive, appearing at the school with his wife Angela at a December show the school’s choir put together.

The pilot school, formerly the Grover Cleveland Middle School, shares space on Charles Street in Fields Corner with the Community Academy of Science and Health (CASH), which used to be located in Hyde Park, and the Cleveland Community Center.

Blake says her school shares the cafeteria, the auditorium, and the gym with the CASH.

“We are in communication all the time and we work it out,” she said, adding that she shares a Google document with the head of CASH, Tanya Freeman-Wisdom, to work out the use of the spaces.

In 2010, the Harbor was designated a “turnaround school” as part of the school department’s bid to combat low test scores and close student achievement gaps.

Blake, who previously was a second-grade teacher at the Henderson Inclusion Elementary School while also serving in a variety of other roles there, said there has been some improvement among Harbor School students, particularly in the subject of English language arts (ELA), though mathematics remains an “area of weakness.” The school also has a program that monitors student progress in five-week cycles, which allows for a quicker alteration of instruction plans if necessary.

“I would say that a lot of the staff, based on what happened last year, initially lost trust,” Blake said, referring to the removal of her predecessor. “But this year, seeing the changes and moving forward, it’s a community that I can say that I’m very proud to be a part of. And as we continue progressing, I believe, I strongly believe, that this will be a school that is a place where people are going to be knocking down our doors to come in.”

But the allegations of lewd conduct cropped up during a time of year when many parents are checking out which schools they may try to get their children into.

“I know that people are thinking about school choice and I know with all of these recent allegations there’s been maybe a question about the safety of our school,” Blake said. “I would love for people to come and visit and see all the great things the Harbor has to offer, and realize that this is a safe place within the city that they could choose for their children to go to. It’s a place of academic priority and progress; we’re also an inclusive middle school and we provide very good options for our students to grow and learn.”