The long road back

The fate of a school and its headmaster's career rest on restoring what was once a Boston educational icon

Headmaster José Duarte (center) waited to greet students with new superintendent, Carol Johnson (left), on the first day.
Headmaster José Duarte (center) waited to greet students with new superintendent, Carol Johnson (left), on the first day. (Yoon S. Byun/ Globe Staff)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / September 16, 2007

The English High School, a historic icon and once one of Boston's premier learning institutions, has become one of the city's worst schools. This year, it must improve or face closure. This story is the first of several about the students, teachers, and headmaster at English as they try to reverse the school's troubled course.

In the darkness before dawn, the headmaster, wearing the new suit his wife had bought him, walked the freshly waxed hallways of The English High School with his brisk, drill sergeant's gait. It was the first day of school. He planned to walk each of the building's six floors to ensure nothing was out of place.

The air smelled of cleanser and paint. On his orders, workers had painted over graffiti, student murals and rows of gunmetal lockers with a fresh coat of royal blue, the school color. Some teachers had stayed past 10 the night before, wiping down desks and rearranging furniture. The headmaster, José Duarte, had asked them to go to any lengths to get the troubled school ready for a new start.

Troubled was an understatement. English High, the oldest public high school in America, was once one of Boston's most prestigious. Now housed in an old Boston Gas Co. office building in Jamaica Plain, it had become one of the city's worst. A fifth of its 1,200 students had to repeat a grade. A quarter of the senior class had dropped out. It suffered the worst retention rate of Boston's large high schools and the second-worst test scores. The situation had become so bad last year that the state had threatened to close it. Duarte was given one last chance: a year in which to reverse the course at English and salvage his own career.

To do the job, he had been given an extra $1.2 million, freedom to make curriculum changes and greater leeway over faculty appointments. He gained authority to shrink the student body for smaller classes and a moratorium on union work rules for teachers, allowing him to extend the school day by two class periods. There would be few excuses if he failed.

Success, on the other hand, would provide a blueprint for reforming struggling schools across the state.

Duarte is a compact man who tends to dart from one task to the next. As he walked through the building, he noticed desks that had been pushed into the hallway and radioed a custodian, barking: "This needs to be moved before the kids get here." His staff and teachers are used to his rapid-fire orders. "I have no time for long discussions," he said later, recalling his rounds through the building.

He'd noted a few teachers had already arrived and were busily readying their classrooms. Many of the faculty were new. With unprecedented freedom to handpick a staff, Duarte in February had asked teachers to reapply for their jobs and ultimately pushed out a third of the faculty he deemed not up to the task. Of the 27 new teachers he hired, a third were young and inexperienced, and he was making big demands of them. He'd made teachers show up nearly two weeks before school to take part in rigorous training and to participate in a ropes course to promote team building. He'd lectured them about their wardrobes and the appearance of their classrooms.

Duarte ducked into a science lab, where a new teacher was preparing for biology and chemistry classes. Her lab coat hung on an easel. Test tubes and beakers glimmered on the table.

"Nice job," he said, his compliments as clipped as his demands. "It looks ready to go."

Whether the teachers' enthusiasm could be maintained was an entirely different issue. Duarte talked of the intense responsibility he felt toward the students - and a deep emotional commitment. Like him, many of them are immigrants. He had come from Cape Verde as a high school student and remembered what it was like to struggle in a foreign place.

But many, quite simply, were unlikely to succeed and, for that matter, didn't want to. The average English student was absent one out of eight days last year, twice the city average. Classes were routinely disrupted by prank fire alarms pulled by students who wanted to flee during the required evacuation.

Duarte knew that, for all his work, some students were against him. At an assembly last year where he announced his changes for the school, students booed and organized a strike to protest the plans for longer days. Over the summer, many opted to go to other schools rather than go along with his hopes for reform.

In the back of his mind were other worries, too: intense pressure from powerful alumni of the storied school, along with the mayor and new school superintendent, all of them pushing for success. In the year ahead, state and school system officials would constantly evaluate him and his school. He repeated to himself words that had become a mantra in recent months: "I cannot fail."

Coming back into the school's lobby, past classical marble and bronze statues and a century-old wrought iron gate from a former English High building, Duarte summoned a janitor. He wanted a ladder. He had made a banner in the shape of a pennant and printed the words, "College For All." He had imagined it as a constant exhortation for students, hanging above the lobby as the year wore on, urging them to succeed.

He climbed and stretched to place the banner high and prominent. Back on the ground, he looked up to examine his work. It seemed suddenly small, even pitiful, on the large, blank wall. He considered taking it down but stopped himself. "Let it be a seed," he said.

Fred Daniels lay in the yellow-flowered sheets of his king-size bed. On a chair was a backpack he had stuffed the night before with notepads and folders for his first day as a senior at English High. But when his mother came to wake him at 5:45, he recalled, he told her he wasn't going. Once the day had arrived, he didn't see the point. "Everyone just comes to show off new clothes," he said later. "They don't start teaching 'til Monday."

Daniels knew expectations of him this year were high. Duarte had told him so. English needs Daniels to succeed. The 19-year-old had a checkered background - a criminal record, a string of school expulsions - but he'd also shown that he was smart and capable. Duarte had taken a special interest in him, seeing him as an example of someone who could achieve great things when he summoned determination and discipline.

At times Daniels had done well in school, earning high marks in advanced classes in elementary and middle school and scoring high enough on a city test to land a spot at one of Boston's top exam schools. He didn't go, he said, because he was lazy and didn't want to be "stuck in the house with all these books." Over the next several years, he drifted, repeatedly failing classes and chronically skipping school. When he went, he got in fights.

He made a stark reversal after arriving at English last fall, making honor roll for the first two quarters. In March, his brother was gunned down on a public bus in Dorchester, and his grades plummeted. "I didn't feel like doing anything," he said.

School counselors sought therapy for him, and Daniels vowed to focus on his future. He said he wanted to become the first in his family to earn a high school diploma and go to college. All of that, though, didn't make him willing to go to school on the first day.

His phone rang. It was a girl he knew at school, the third to call that morning wondering why he wasn't there.

"I'm on my way," he said.

When Duarte spotted Daniels walking into the front office two hours late, the headmaster dragged him into his office and fumed. "I thought he was going to beat me," Daniels said later. He told Duarte he would do better and headed into the crowds of students coursing through the hallways between classes.

On the way, girls cooed at the tall, muscular teen and beckoned him for hugs. Several approached from behind, covering his eyes with their hands. He rubbed one classmate's pregnant belly and leaned over to sniff another girl's hairspray.

"It should be called 'Mesmerize,' " Daniels purred. The girl giggled.

In honors algebra, his best subject, the teacher asked students to talk about their summers. Daniels tuned her out and studied something far more important: a chart of graduation requirements. As he read, he jotted on a yellow pad all the classes he has to take.

It wasn't good. Because he had failed so many classes, he will have to cram two years of school into nine months to graduate on time. In addition to his regular classes, he'll have to take night classes in science and English.

Suddenly, the blare of a fire alarm interrupted class. Students filed out of the building.

"Already? The first day of school?" Daniels said, climbing down three flights of stairs. "Man, we didn't even get to fourth period."

Outside, Daniels saw a group of friends, and they bumped knuckles. "What's poppin' yo?" Daniels said.

Within minutes, the group hopped a chain link fence and walked to a bodega across the street, where crowds of other students were gleefully jostling and buying snacks.

What the students didn't see was Duarte running toward the market, his tie flapping in his face with every stride. They didn't see him until he appeared at the entrance of the shop, flanked by school police officers. More than 15 students were trapped inside, targeted with something that was unimaginable last year - a citation that could lead to suspension.

Daniels and his friends scattered before the headmaster arrived.

Valeria Cabrera, lugging her heavy school bag, purposefully strode a fourth-floor hallway to her guidance counselor's office. With her class schedule folded in her hand, she sighed as she waited for the counselor to see her. When she signed up for her senior-year classes last year, she had insisted that she have a full schedule. But when she picked up the computer printout this morning, it included a free period. She wanted the counselor to fill the spot with another class, preferably one at college-level.

"Everyone says: 'Oh, you have a free block. You're so lucky.' But I don't want any free time," said the 17-year-old with perfectly plucked eyebrows.

Cabrera wants to go to Princeton. Her Dominican parents want her to go there, too. Her father, a construction worker, and her mother, who works by day at a Building 19 jewelry counter in Lynn and by night as a janitor at Harvard, have drilled her with a single message: Education is the ticket out of poverty.

She has listened to them and excelled. At English High, she has a 3.78 grade point average. This year, she thinks she can't afford an idle hour during the day - not if she is going to get into Princeton, not if she is to win the scholarship she needs to afford it.

The counselor summoned Cabrera to her desk and flipped through a stack of class options. But after a moment, the counselor shook her head. There were no classes available that she had not already taken.

Cabrera sat sullenly. At times, she had wondered if English High, with its slim academic offerings and poor reputation, would be a liability when she competes for admission to top colleges. But she stayed because teachers and the headmaster pushed her into challenging classes and encouraged her to reach high. She'd been buoyed by the school's recent plans to improve, but still she sometimes worried.

"It's funny because it's like trusting someone that has let you down before," she said.

Her counselor offered an alternative: Cabrera could volunteer to tutor struggling students, or work in the guidance office during her free period. Cabrera thought about it. It occurred to her that working in the guidance office would mean she'll be close to the woman who can help her with college applications, and she took the offer.

Duarte stepped outside the school's front door after a late afternoon meeting, relieved that the day was over.

He had spent most of his time popping into classrooms and patrolling the hallways, greeting students with high fives and hugs. He asked students if they were ready to work, and pulled one boy aside to whisper a simple warning: "No more stupid things."

It had not been a perfect day. A math teacher had run up to him in the hallway asking for a 40-day leave of absence. Only 573 of 800 students had reported, despite a prerecorded phone message from Duarte to each of the students, urging them to attend. One of the missing was Jennifer Smith, a baby-faced 17-year-old who has a 20-month-old son. Duarte hoped that the challenges of being a teen mother would not derail the girl from her dreams of becoming a pediatrician, and made a mental note to track her down.

On the other hand, there were no disasters. Even the fire alarm turned out to be caused by a leaky pipe, and wasn't a prank as he feared.

Nearby, he saw two students sitting on a low wall - Fred Daniels talking to a girl. He smiled. He genuinely liked the boy and wanted him to know, despite his harsh words earlier, he was happy the teen had come to school.

Duarte had often befriended other troubled boys like Daniels, kids who had intentions of straightening out but always seemed to teeter. And when they landed in jail, Duarte felt intense frustration, as though their failures were also his own.

Duarte walked over, teased Daniels about flirting with the girl. He could not resist reminding him to register for night school.

"Most of the students, including me, think of you as a nagging parent," Daniels said. "But to me, nagging only means that you care."

The words struck Duarte in his heart. Maybe this would all be worth it. Maybe English would thrive, even rise again to a position of prestige.

The English High School, a historic icon and once one of Boston's premier learning institutions, has become one of the city's worst schools. This year, it must improve or face closure. This story is the first of several about the students, teachers, and headmaster at English as they try to reverse the school's troubled course.

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