Kevin Cullen

Misguided makeovers

Jeremiah E. Burke High School student Ricardo Canuto. Jeremiah E. Burke High School student Ricardo Canuto.
By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / May 18, 2010

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Ricardo Canuto is 19 years old and when he came here from Cape Verde three years ago he didn’t speak a lick of English.

In three weeks, he’ll graduate with honors from the Jeremiah E. Burke High School in Dorchester and for this alone they should have a parade for him. He’s a good kid who worked hard and did well. He wants to be a cop. Maybe a lawyer.

His father cuts meat at a local market and couldn’t be prouder.

Ricardo Canuto’s got a school ring, a blue stone with the Bulldogs and class of 2010 etched on the side. He’s got a college scholarship. He’s the vice president of the Honor Society.

And yet he was sitting there, in one of the rooms at the Catholic Charities Teen Center off Bowdoin Street, in between school and his job at the KFC in Edward Everett Square, a study in frustration.

“There was an earthquake at my school,’’ he said. “That’s what I call it. An earthquake.’’

The Burke was one of the seven schools in Boston singled out by the state as underperforming. Under a federal program, those schools had to replace half their staffs. This is a very elaborate, intricate process known to people without doctorates as musical chairs.

Ricardo Canuto doesn’t have a doctorate.


“When I saw the people who lost their jobs, it didn’t make much sense to me. A lot of them were some of the best teachers,’’ he said.

“What really got me, though, was that no one, in this whole process, bothered to ask us, the students, what we thought. You would think that when it comes to deciding who’s a good teacher and who’s not a good teacher, the students might have some good ideas. We know who stays late. We know who calls home, talks to our parents, makes sure we’re doing the work. We know who cares about us.’’

What drives him nuts is that this has been dressed up as being done for the good of the students.

“A lot of people who think this is a good idea aren’t affected by the decisions,’’ he said. “We are. But we have no say in the decisions.’’

Ricardo Canuto called School Department headquarters.

“I talked to a lady. She was an assistant superintendent or something like that. She listened. She said they had a process and everything was done properly, but she said I made a good point about the students being ignored. She said, ‘I’ll pass on the information and someone will get back to you.’

“Well, it’s been about two weeks and nobody’s called me. I guess they don’t care what we think,’’ he said.

Here’s what Ricardo Canuto thinks. He thinks laying off the only Cape Verdean guidance counselor at the Burke, where more than half the kids are Cape Verdean, isn’t a very good idea.

He thinks the process of judging teachers is arbitrary, one that can’t possibly account for the various problems facing various kids.

“They’re looking in the classroom, but they really need to look in the home,’’ he said. “A lot of the kids who have problems at school have problems at home. But they can’t reassign the parents, so they reassign the teachers.’’

Ricardo Canuto is, by any measure, a success story.

But many of the teachers he credits with pushing him lost their jobs. Some, like the guidance counselor, have found jobs at other schools. But for kids like Ricardo, it’s a pointless dance.

Ricardo took some books to the KFC last night.

“I get a 30-minute break,’’ he said. “I study then, and then I study when I get home.’’

Sometimes he studies five or six hours a day. But he may end his high school career as something different than a bookworm.

“Some kids are talking about going downtown, and tell them what we think,’’ he said. “If they go, I’m with them.’’

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at

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