Boston Prep breaks ground for new home

Boston Prep students Junisha Dessin, Amirna Nunez, and Jodalis Gonzalez joined in at last Saturday’s groundbreaking for a new school building on River Street. Caleb Nelson photoBoston Prep students Junisha Dessin, Amirna Nunez, and Jodalis Gonzalez joined in at last Saturday’s groundbreaking for a new school building on River Street. Caleb Nelson photo

After eleven years of renting space in an old Catholic schoolhouse, one of Boston’s 34 charter schools broke ground for its new home on River Street last Saturday. Construction of the new Boston Prep building, which is located on the Mattapan-Hyde Park line across the street from a strip mall with a view of the cylindrical chimneys of an old factory on the Neponset River, is expected to be completed in May 2017.

The building will be three stories high, comprising roughly 49,000 square feet, with the middle school on the top floor, and the high school, a shared gymnasium, cafeteria, art room, and library on the first and second floors.

On Saturday morning, under a bright blue sky, parents, teachers, and students gathered around piles of apple cider donuts and cartons of coffee that were neatly spread across two folding tables in a massive fenced lot. Young children ran up and down dirt piles and between the easels displaying drawings of Boston Prep’s future home.

Miguel Ortiz, the father of a seventh and tenth grader at Boston Prep, brought along his family to share in the big moment for their school. “This is a great event,” he said. “It’s great for the parents, the kids, for the neighborhood, period. It brings security to our neighborhood. It brings education, which is the focus that we should have as parents and as a community.”

Eleventh grader Nya Alexander, who started at Boston Prep in the 6th grade, said that the school makes sure that each student succeeds. “They won’t let you fail,” she said. “If you’re failing, they’ll come up to you, say you need to make this up, and they’ll help you get through that class.”

Everyone clustered in a semi-circle around 12 shiny new shovels, stuck in neat rows in a dirt pile. Bill Clark, chairman of the board, kicked off the ceremony with a story: One chilly evening in late October, he said, he saw Boston Prep’s first class of sixth graders walking back from basketball practice at a gym the school rents from the Hyde Park Community Center. To pass time on their trek, the students were chanting their multiplication tables. It was “what they call rolling your numbers,” Clark said. “I have two reflections on that, which are relevant to today. One was, ‘Hey these guys are going to make it. There is determination here. There is effort here, and this is gonna work.’ The other is, ‘These guys need a gym.’ ”

The idea for Boston Prep began in 2002, when Scott McCue wrote down an ethics program, a curriculum, and a real estate plan for a new college preparatory school in Boston. Back then he identified several viable sites, and thought that 18 months would be plenty of time to secure it, finance it, and renovate it. That vision did not materialize, and in 2004, Boston Prep opened in the old Most Precious Blood School on Hyde Park Ave, which had closed in 2002.

With classrooms around the perimeter of a large central cafeteria with a wooden gym floor, a stage at the far end of the room set up as the library, and a second-floor balcony running along three walls, the current space feels intimate and small for the 415 students it serves. Over the years McCue tried to secure a permanent site three times, accruing a small library of architectural prints in his office.

“I’d taken to calling it my library of broken dreams,” he said. “When I welcomed Sharon onto the job, when I brought her into my office, I showed her the big pile of fancy big boards in my office. The weekend after I left she threw away the library.”

Sharon Liszanckie, the executive director of Boston Prep, reinvigorated the search, and established a new vision when she took over in 2012. Within 18 months she had identified the school’s new home. At the ground-breaking, three years to the month after she partnered with Pacific Charter School Development to find the new space, Liszanckie reminded the assembled crowd of Boston Prep’s accomplishments: Five graduating classes, 140 Boston Prep alumni, got into colleges.

“We’ve always said you don’t need a great building to have a great school,” Liszanckie said. “But we’re absolutely at a point now where our students and our teachers and families deserve a facility that is aligned with our college preparatory mission.”

Two of Boston Prep’s founding teachers, Elsie Wong and Dave Berkley, talked about the distractions of teaching in the old Most Precious Blood building, where windows break at random and the heating system has a mind of its own.

“I was teaching in what is now an 8th-grade homeroom,” Wong said, recalling her first year of teaching in the school’s current space. “I heard loud clanking, and it was like someone was running around the building with a tire iron, hitting all of the pipes that were all above us.”

Teachers have gotten used to talking over the pipes banging throughout their morning classes, and now think of the heating system as a pet. “We are thankful that it comes around every year, and still lives in the building with us,” Wong said.

Berkley echoed Wong’s frustrations about the heat, and also the lack of air circulation on warm days in early fall and late spring, teaching in “crowded, sweaty, hot, fragrant, classrooms.”

“I will not miss those experiences,” he said. “Nobody here just wants to make do, and I’m looking forward to a time when we can dedicate the creative energy, dedicate the thought, the effort, to overcoming other kinds of obstacles that are in our way, to solving problems that have to do with teaching and learning, and preparing for success in college, and lifelong ethical growth.”

The speeches lasted for a total of 20 minutes, ending with a few words from those directly impacted. Jessica Dawn, whose oldest daughter, NaKymrha, graduated last year, and attends Lincoln University, offered a few closing remarks. Her younger daughter, AllexAndrya, is a junior, and she has a niece and a cousin in the middle school. One thing that stuck with Dawn, that kept her daughters in the school despite the cramped quarters, was the teachers’ dedication to each student’s well being. She said her daughter has loved Mr. McCue, and Boston Prep, since he welcomed her on the first day of school, knowing her full name and how to pronounce it correctly.

“Boston Prep is a part of our family,” Dawn said. “To the administration of yesterday and today, to the parents and the students, to the Boston community, I say congratulations, and continue to be that shining light in educating our children today for a better future tomorrow. I am proud of my decision to choose Boston Prep.”

With that Anders Peterson, the school’s director of development, passed around hard hats. All right, so we’re going to make it official,” he said. “Let’s don some hard hats and take up some shovels.”