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SCOT LEHIGH

Graduating the best

JUNE IS a time of turning tassels, sailing mortar boards, and graduation celebrations of years of hard high-school work. So let's take a look at some praiseworthy public school achievements.

Our tour starts at Somerville High.

Some other cities have been defeatist about boosting their students over the MCAS bar.

Not here. Somerville High's is hardly an affluent student body. Fifty-four percent of its 1,474 students are low-income. More than half are minorities. Students or parents hail from some 44 countries, with at least 23 languages spoken. At least 12 percent are English learners. Twenty-six percent are Hispanic, 19 percent African-American.

This year, school officials say, every Somerville High School senior otherwise qualified to graduate, save one with attendance problems, passed the MCAS. For the second year of three, all the kids in Phil Bassett's ambitious vocational education program passed. (The state Department of Education, which counts all students enrolled as of Oct. 1 of last year, has a slightly lower rate of 94 percent; but even that way, Somerville does significantly better than the urban district average of 88 percent.)

How does Somerville High do it? Assistant Superintendent Bob Snow credits the foundation laid by district imperatives like free full-day preschool and kindergarten, plus high-school classes that average no more than 20 kids, with an ironclad rule of no more than 22.

Another cornerstone is the school's writing portfolio; essays are required in every course, including vocational programs, with some 20 final-draft written assignments each year.

``If it's a full-time course, you are required to write," says Snow. ``The key is to consistently have kids reading and writing."

Then there's the school's strong esprit de corps.

`` `We'll get through it together' is the culture of the school when it comes to the MCAS," says (retiring) Principal Thomas Galligani.

And they do. That doesn't mean obsessing about the test. But it does mean that when students come to the high school, their previous test scores are reviewed to help hone in on their needs.

The district strove early on to align its curriculum with the statewide frameworks. Some MCAS work is built into the regular coursework in grades 9 and 10, while specific MCAS-geared review courses in English or math are required for juniors and seniors who have failed those ex ams.

There's also after-school tutoring for students who have failed, plus Saturday prep sessions led by automotive instructor Bob Puopolo, whose intense you-can-do-it commitment makes attendance hard to resist for MCAS strugglers.

Visiting Somerville High School, one can't help but be impressed by an urban school whose success shows just what students, teachers, and administrators can accomplish with focus, hard work, and determination.

Here's another eye-catching success. All of the 2006 graduates or soon-to-be graduates of the five Boston Commonwealth charter high schools have been accepted at, and plan to attend, college -- most at four-year institutions. That means 41 students from City on a Hill, 21 from the Academy of the Pacific Rim, 17 from Codman Academy, 16 from Boston Collegiate, and 15 from the Media and Technology Charter High School are all college-bound.

As an overall snapshot, almost 60 percent of the Boston charter high school population is composed of low-income students; three-quarters are black or Hispanic.

At City on a Hill, where this year's valedictorian is Smith-bound on a scholarship, high school is all about college.

``We are pretty focused from the time they start freshman year on preparing them for college success," says executive director Michael Duffy.

In pursuit of the college objective, students there have a longer day than most of their traditional public school counterparts, starting at 8 and taking classes until 3. Then, from 3 to 5, students work with a tutor or a teacher on their skills.

At Codman Academy, where the student body is 100 percent minority, a 9-to-5 school day, Saturday morning classes, and a strong connection to students' families are part of the prescription for success, says Meg Campbell, the head of the school.

Come fall, Codman's 17 graduates will be off to places like Brandeis, Holy Cross, Boston College, Northeastern, UMass-Amherst, the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, and Kentucky State University.

MATCH, meanwhile, is sending two graduates off to Smith, one to Duke, another to Denison, and others to well-regarded public universities or small colleges.

As with Somerville High School's, those are public school successes to celebrate.

Congratulations, graduates!

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is lehigh@globe.com.

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