Meet the students from the most important school in Boston you’ve never heard of
BY PRESS PASS TV AND THE STUDENTS OF COMMUNITY ACADEMY
Introduction by Chris Faraone
Public schools in Boston have seemingly made more headlines than usual lately. Some stories have covered the fight over department budgeting and allocations, but a disproportionate heap of attention has been paid to the fate of Boston Latin School, the Hub’s famously elite institution that graduates more than 99 percent of its students.
But what of the rest? How about the struggling programs? What about the bottom, sometimes forgotten rung where schools are in perpetual turmoil and can’t dream of attracting media coverage, positive or negative? The shooting of an English High School student by one of his deans last year, for example, received far less attention than allegations of racial discrimination at BLS.
For three years, our friends at the nonprofit Press Pass TV, which helps to amplify youth perspectives by engaging young people in conceiving and producing original content, worked with students at Community Academy in Jamaica Plain, an alternative BPS high school that is often a last resort for youth who are in danger of leaving or being expelled from the system. Press Pass has offered classes there from Resilient Coders, which teaches web site development, as well as from Sneakers 4 Success, which collaborated with students on a shoe that was produced by Reebok. Since Community Academy is often on the chopping block — most recently, the building was slated for closure at the end of the 2014–2015 academic year but was saved at the urging of concerned parents and teachers — Press Pass TV staff felt it was important to note the school’s rather extraordinary history and to chronicle the passion that so many people have for the place.
Community Academy first opened at the Roxbury Boys & Girls Club in the 1994–1995 year, when the alternative program was described by the Boston Globe as serving students who were “expelled from, or dropped out of, traditional high schools.” Under the leadership of the tireless youth advocate Brenda Love, two of the school’s first dozen graduates went on to attend college. In 1996, the student-teacher ratio was approximately 15 to 1, with apparent success on the horizon, but the following year the program was bounced to a smaller, less adequate location in the Shelburne Community Center, leading the Globe to lament the “ill-conceived decision, ending what should have been a long partnership and a model for other nonprofit groups.” Asked about the wrench in plans, Love told reporters, “This has produced the first dropouts in our history. Kids trying to make a positive change in their lives are depressed by this indecision.”
Before and after settling in its current location on the increasingly gentrified Jamaica Plain side of Egleston Square, there’s been a near-perpetual threat to the existence of Community Academy. Before last year’s scare, in 2010 then-BPS Superintendent Carol Johnson recommended closing the alternative along with several other schools, but decided to keep the academy open after learning of its success helping students from non-English-speaking backgrounds.
In considering the plight and state of Community Academy — the dropout rate was 57 percent in 2015 (compared with 11.9 percent district-wide and 0.4 percent at an elite exam school like Boston Latin Academy) — it is important to acknowledge the remarkable pain its population has endured through the years. From almost the beginning, students from the school have had their lives cut short by senseless violence; in 1997, Community Academy student Eric Paulding became the first juvenile murder victim in two years at the time. Other students included the 14-year-old who was shot in the mouth by BPD homicide detectives in 2003 after he allegedly brandished a firearm, as well as 17-year-old Charles Ajene, a Mattapan native who was killed outside a carnival that same year. In 2005, 19-year-old Eric Perkins was murdered in Mattapan while coming home from work; he had graduated from Community Academy after being tossed from East Boston High School. In 2010, 17-year-old Community Academy student Ivol Brown was stabbed to death, and in 2011, 17-year-old James Coakley, who also attended the school, was killed over July 4 weekend.
Despite torrential hardship — or perhaps in large part because of it — there is significant school pride at Community Academy. When Press Pass TV asked some students about potential options if the school ever closed down, they said their only other feasible next choice is the corner, the streets. Their stories are deep — much deeper than any dropout or graduation statistics reveal — and should be recognized whenever BPS breaks out the hatchet to determine which items to cut. So in addition to bringing in Boston hip-hop stalwart Letia Larok to guide students through a musical experience in which they shared their sentiments through rhymes, we teamed up with Press Pass to ask members of the Community Academy family to also capture their thoughts in interviews. These are their stories.
“The time I had with these young men really gave me insight on how real the day to day struggles are for these youths out here,” Larok says. “Departing from them for summer break was especially hard knowing how crazy these streets are once the weather gets warm. I find myself lifting them up in prayer daily.”
JAHNI (17) — Junior from Dorchester
I started at Match [Charter Public School], then I went to Edward M. Kennedy, then the school I’m at now. When I was at Match and Kennedy, they were good schools, but I felt they were a little too big. Here I have the smaller class, I just do my work. I like classes like Spanish and English and math and sometimes history.
It’s not as many kids here. It’s not as much drama — it’s focused on graduating from high school. You can figure out different plans to graduate earlier, to graduate on time. Dudes just having drama for no reason — you don’t like someone because you have beef. It’s not enough people for you to have beef — there’s only a couple of heads here. We click, it’s simple.
At a big school you get more into popularity and stuff like that. Here you just come to do what you need to. I see it as a good place to graduate. This wasn’t the last chance for me — it was just something I was going to see if I could do and if it was a good fit for me. And I stayed, so it ended up working for me.
I met a couple people who I wouldn’t probably connect with in another school.
They bring a lot of creative programs. A lot of teachers here also help with jobs and resumes. I’m working with the [Boston Private Industry Council and Department of Youth Services], probably at a community center. I had a job for last summer too.
Even at small schools like this, it’s always good to lay low and remain yourself.
AJ (16) — Junior from Wainwright Park
I started off in Charlestown High. I went there for a little while. They kicked me out for regular gang activity though — they didn’t want me to go inside because there was a mix of people. Then I went to Southie, then I got moved to Brighton. Then I got kicked out of there. I was buggin’. I didn’t really care too much about stuff.
Last year I came here. All I was thinking was, “I’m about to fuck somebody up.” I have a lot of beef with people, so I was just thinking there were probably going to be a lot of people who I didn’t like. Shit happens, but it turns out that it’s cool people here, there was nothing really serious.
I asked everybody in the school where they from — gotta get that out of the way first. We had a roll call inside of the cafeteria, and just asked everyone. I made sure I ain’t have no beef with nobody, and from right there on it was just cool with everybody. There aren’t really any problems, nothing.
It’s more comfortable, it’s more trusting. I can look over here and know what he’s about. I’m with him. I know certain people. But when it’s too much, it’s like you can’t be with everybody. Certain people are cool with other people, and certain people will have beef with your friends, and you just never know what can happen.
I play people here from a distance. We can be friends inside of school, it’s a mutual thing. Once we get outside of school, with the exception of few, there’s very few words.
It feels good now because I know what more people are about. I’m trying to find out what the big group is about, and I take the time to talk to each individual one of my peers to see where their heads are at. It feels good to know that and to know we’re on common ground.
One of my brothers was killed back in January. I know what I’m around every day, so why not share it with people? I tried to keep it to a minimum, where it’s not too explicit where it can get my friends indicted or something, just to a certain extent I can try to share what I can. I freestyle, I write, I do it all. I’ve been into rapping — all of the other stuff came with it. It’s not a fluke or a false advertisement — you can ask people, they’re going to tell you that it’s not a joke.
Open your eyes up. Real can relate. You’re going to relate if you’ve been through it. But if you haven’t, like a political person, I don’t think they’ll really get too much of where I’m coming from because they’re so into politics. We’re living inside of a box, and we haven’t gotten outside of that box yet to see the bigger world. Other people have seen the other side, but I haven’t seen it, so I talk about what I see every day when I wake up.
Summertime is hard for a lot of people. I always say that. You gotta be on point. Overall, life is hard, but in the summertime people grow extra balls and try to do stuff. That’s why I just want to make sure all my peoples are safe and just doing they own thing. I don’t need nobody trying to be something they not.
LUIGI (16) — Sophomore from Hyde Park-Mattapan
I came in March. Before that I was at Brighton High, and before that the Rogers [Middle School]. I got kicked out of Brighton because of court stuff, and at the Rogers I didn’t really get kicked out — it was just a school issue. I would have stayed, it wasn’t bad. I have to go to school. You tell me I have to go to this school, and I’ll go.
At first I didn’t want to come here. I was just trying to switch around, because I was just starting to do good and then — boom — I had to switch schools. So it was kind of heartbreaking. I kind of felt like I was thrown to the curb. It wasn’t a bad enough situation that I had to be transferred to here.
It’s a tough crowd, but so long as you don’t stand out you’ll be fine. I actually thought nobody here got along, until I came and noticed that they’re all friends. Most of the kids that are here are from different sets and hoods and stuff, so I thought it was like a school where people were fighting all the time because they were from different sets and didn’t like each other.
Things are pretty tight here. You get more attention, and they push you to learn. They push you to do everything as a matter of fact. They help you not just in school but outside of school, so that kind of motivates. It’s creative — we have hip-hop classes, we have mentors, we have people to sit down and talk to about things happening outside of school. It’s not like one of those schools where they just seat you and what happens outside of school is your problem. Here people are more involved in your life. They care more.
JAMAL RAHMAN — Community Field Coordinator
I am the Community Field Coordinator. The role kind of changes depending on what school you’re at — here I’m on the discipline side of things, but I’d say I’m the dean of culture. That’s what the last principal, Mr. Miller, named it. I also check in all the kids in the morning, so I have to do the pat-downs, and the wands. And then the attendance.
When I tell people it’s an alternative school, the first thing they say is, “Oh, you got the bad kids.” I wouldn’t say it’s the bad kids so much as that we’re dealing with maybe the most challenging population. I work pretty close with Mr. Campbell, the dean of discipline, and with the headmaster, and I’m kind of like the first line of defense. When the kids are not able to handle themselves in the right manner in class, I’m the first person they call — I sit with the kids, I talk to them. I try to redirect them, get them back into class.
I’ve been here for four years. I was a science teacher at Middle School Academy. Then I left the system for about five years, and I came back four years ago. Middle School Academy is pretty much the middle school equivalent, so it’s the same population of students who have been expelled and that sort of thing. Mr. C, the math teacher, he and I went to college together, so he told me when the position came up that it would be perfect for me.
You learn the students, you learn what works with some and what doesn’t work, and you just do your best to identify strategies to help them. It’s a broad focus — we try to identify the students who aren’t coming and figure out ways to get them to come — we call houses, figure out ways to get them here. Then at the same time deal with ones who are coming but aren’t coming all the time. We try to do everything, but there’s only so much we can do.
NAQUAN (16) — Sophomore from Dorchester
I’ve had some good experiences and some bad experiences [in BPS].
I came here in February, and was at English before that … I might be going back next year. I chose to come here because they said I could be graduating by next year. They said it was a small environment and that it’s better for graduating sooner.
It’s just like a smaller English, but there’s more freedom here. I knew most of [the students at Community Academy] before I came here. They’re all friends here. My friends at home don’t believe me — they keep asking me, “How is that possible? How is that possible?” They think I’m lying, but I don’t.
Personally I don’t have no tension with different neighborhoods. I’m friends with whoever I want to be friends with. It’s not my smoke because I’m cool with you, and you have smoke with them — that has nothing to do with me.
KATINA MCCLAIN — Spanish Teacher
This is my first year at Community Academy, but I’ve been teaching for 12 years. I’ve been in Boston Public Schools for four years — this is my fourth school, but I taught at Washington Irving Middle School last year; before that I was at Boston Latin Academy, and I started out at Excel High School in Southie. And I still coach for Boston Latin Academy. My title here is spanish teacher, and I’ve done a combination of teaching Spanish, ESL, performing arts, dance, and theater throughout Boston Public Schools.
Pretty much I was sought out by the headmaster who we had at the beginning of the year. I already had another job in the district, and originally I didn’t really know if I wanted to work in an alternative environment.
It’s been quite a unique experience for me — I’ve seen some wonderful and some not so wonderful things in my time in BPS, but I went back to school this year …
We have some students who come here by choice. Their parents like that there are very small classrooms, which is another reason I wanted to come here — I was tired of working with a ridiculous number of students and not feeling I had the support. That is a positive of this school, the low student-to-teacher ratio. And honestly there are some kids who made some choices and had some consequences which have brought them here — most of them not by choice. Some of them have had the option to go back to their regular public schools within the city, some made that choice to go back, and others have made the decision to stay, trying to finish up their secondary education.
I feel like my approach has always been the same — I’m very honest with these kids. We can be very honest. Sometimes they feel like there’s not a connection between this school and what happens on the outside, and we talk about that, and I understand why they feel that — because they have more pressing issues, whether it’s wondering about where they’re going to stay, being safe, things like that. It’s creating the dialogue.
To be honest, I’m surprised by how many kids we have out here floating around during the last week when a lot of them don’t even need to be here. Some of them aren’t even passing their classes, but it’s something about the relationships they have with people in the building which brings them back when they don’t necessarily even have to be here.
The school has a lot of potential. One disappointment I had is that while we are an alternative high school, many of our practices hit that traditional one-size-fits-all kind of teaching. And that also means some of our students weren’t as successful as they should be. So for next year there have been discussions about some of us working and redesigning our curriculum so it’s more project-based. I also would like to make more connections to community partnerships … A lot of our students have great entrepreneurial skills — it’s just about being able to use that in a productive way.
REESE (16) — Junior from Dorchester
Before this I was at Southie for the whole time, and I just wasn’t messing with it. I wasn’t trying to be over there. [Community Academy] is more focused, it’s more independent.
I figured I would come here, do my thing. I went through with it, started liking it. Just do your work, and you’re gonna be straight. You’re gonna be good. People don’t be liking school, but you can understand your work a lot easier because there’s less distraction.
Everybody here is going to see if there is a [learning difficulty] — because everybody sees each other throughout the periods. For the most part, you can go to any teacher and talk to them, and they’re cool. Or you could talk to the office and talk to them. You can talk to anybody if you have a problem and you need to talk about it. I like this school because at a regular school they can’t do that — they have to be worrying about every student.
We just stick together, that’s all we can do at the end of the day. Most of the people, I already knew them. Now we go to school together. Me personally — when I see dudes who I know from the streets and now we’re in school together, I want to see them do good with me because I know I’m going to do good regardless. I’m doing my stuff.
I’m working at a community center this summer, mentoring kids. Some kids I would tell them to come to this school, but it’s not for everyone. This is my school; it’s the end of the school year, and I was just thinking about that all today. Like one of the guidance counselors said on the first day — there’s going to be a lot of people who don’t end the school year with you. End of the school year, and I’ve seen people leave and never come back. It don’t even be the weather problems — it’s just they’re never coming back to school.