February 11, 2010
Late last year, a young man was shot and killed in broad daylight near the John Marshall Elementary School in Dorchester. This was just the latest example of violence in a city that has grown weary of seeing its schools become urban battlegrounds.
Just a few blocks away sits the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School. Like the Marshall, it's in a neighborhood that is a feeding ground for gang members and is perhaps the toughest middle school in Boston. Over the past several years, three of the school's students have been shot and killed, and many more have been stabbed. Just walking to school can be a dangerous experience.
For the past several years, I've had the privilege to take part in a program entitled Principal For A Day. My assigned school this year was the Frederick. More than 6,000 students attend pilot schools in the city, and the waiting list is long. They are self-governing schools that have their own curriculum and provide students with the personal attention they need.
The real principal of the Frederick school is a dedicated woman named Deb Socia. Having spent a day there, it was evident to me that after seven years on the front lines, she is a dedicated educator who is improving her school despite some daunting obstacles.
To successfully navigate these difficulties requires a rare combination of toughness and compassion. Deb Socia has both. She is a white woman in a school whose students are overwhelmingly non-white, so she had to earn the trust of students and their families. Her day begins at 7 a.m. and often doesn't end until 8 p.m. She keeps the Frederick open six days a week. She doesn't hide in the classroom — she goes outside to make sure the students get on the bus safely. For the female students, she acts as a surrogate mother, because many of them are children having children.
She provides the students with two meals each day. Instead of gang colors, the students wear school uniforms. She even finds time to engage their parents in the process, bringing them into the school at night to study English and learn how to use a computer. And Mayor Menino has also been a frequent visitor and supporter.
However, after years of this regimen, Deb Socia is tired and frustrated and probably will soon call it quits. One of the great ironies in this situation is that the very organization that should be doing all it can to support dedicated principals and teachers -- the Boston Teacher's Union -- too often acts as a major obstacle to reform.
Despite the fact that it was the BTU that created the concept of pilot schools, the union is now resistant to the idea of adding more because transforming to a pilot school requires teachers to work longer hours and face the loss of overtime and job protection.
When I served as press secretary to Boston Mayor Kevin H. White during the late 1970s, I saw a culture embedded in the Boston Teachers Union and the school department that was resistant to change and determined to protect its own interests. It seems little has changed for this union.
Boston School Superintendent Carol Johnson recently announced a five-year strategic plan for Boston schools entitled "Acceleration Agenda." It is an ambitious effort to inject new standards of accountability into underperforming schools. In a new educational era where the emphasis must be on creativity, flexibility, and openness to change, the adage is especially relevant: If you're not part of the solution, you'e part of the problem.
Last year, my Principal For a Day assignment was at the Media Communications Technology High School in West Roxbury. The headmaster, Sung-Joon Pai, has since left the system, as Deb Socia may soon do.
They are both dedicated professionals, the kind of people the Boston school system dearly needs.
Sadly, they are casualties of a school system that is still far away from where it needs to go.
George K. Regan Jr. is founder and chairman of Regan Communications Group.