Headmaster aims high at English

Boston English High School is experiencing wide, structural changes under the direction of its new headmaster Dr. Sito Narcisse, a 33-year-old Haitian-American educator who hopes to transform the struggling Jamaica Plain institution into one of the city’s best performing high schools.

Narcisse is among the youngest headmasters not only in the Boston Public School system, but in the nation. His unconventional path from a disadvantaged childhood in New York to the helm of one of Boston’s largest schools is one that could well help him harness the momentum that will be needed to make English a top-flight institution.

"I was the kid people said wouldn't be anything," Narcisse recalls. A child of two Haitian immigrants growing up in Brooklyn, Nacrisse, his parents and older brothers all lived together in an apartment that was no bigger than his office space at English High School.

Narcisse's teachers did not make much of his prospects, he said. His parents' insistence on education, however, served to propel his academic career. His mother later achieved a doctorate degree and together with his father would say, “The education…that is the important thing!” Remembering their exhortations with a grin, Narcisse raised a finger to imitate his parents’ insistence on schooling for their children.

Narcisse received a Masters in Education from Vanderbilt College. He recalls troubles with race perceptions at a prestigious school where there were not many people of color in leadership positions.
In 2007 he received a doctorate in education from the University of Pittsburg. His dissertation topic was on something he hopes to formalize in English High School: multiple pathways to student achievement in community partnerships. Since then, Narcisse has made a career of revamping structures for students who have had school experiences akin to his own: growing up under low-performance expectations from middle and high school administrators.
“It’s myths that have gone on for a while, and not just in Boston,” he says.

Narcisse has taken charge at a high school that has been chronically challenged by underperformance. Boston Public Schools Superintendent Carol Johnson has pegged Enligh as one of several schools that could be shuttered if improvements are not made this year. Over the course of the past two years, the school faced threats of closure from the state based on poor MCAS scores.

The student body faces adjustment challenges due to a diverse population: about 54 percent of students are of Latino descent, and 44 percent are Black, ranging from Jamaican, Sierra Leonian, Somalian, and Haitian cultures. As a designated ESL (English as a Second Language) school with no entrance exam required, English receives a large number of students varying in English language and academic skills. The task is to equip the school with resources to meet the range of student needs.

"I want us to create a culture where we can absorb them, no matter who they are,” Narcisse says.

Rather than moving conventionally from teacher to administrator to principal, Narcisse spent the bulk of his professional development working directly with principals and superintendents, eventually becoming one of each himself. He credits his exposure to management styles for preparing him to be answerable to school board and alumni expectations. “I worked like crazy to get here,” Narcisse says and he anticipates maintaining that level of persistence to prepare the students and the institution to be, “the best in the country, not just in Boston.”