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Dreams vs. reality in schools

IN HIS victory speech, Tom Menino announced that he has new dreams for his fourth term as Boston mayor, and that's fine. But it will take more than dreams to change some stubborn old realities -- especially those involving the city's public schools.

Urban public education continues to challenge the best efforts of those who work at it, as I was recently reminded thanks to a program sponsored by the Boston Plan for Excellence. As ''principal for a day," I spent a morning at the Urban Science Academy in West Roxbury and got a glimpse of life in one Boston school.

This high school of approximately 325 students was created by dividing up West Roxbury High School into four distinct learning centers. The principal is Rasheed Hakim Meadows, a 31-year-old graduate of Yale and Harvard's Graduate School of Education. Meadows grew up in Roxbury and attended Framingham public schools through the Metco program. Now, in his first principalship, he is learning the difference between leadership and micromanagement. He is helping faculty ''feel valued" because ''burn-out around here is easy to be had." He is working to create ''a good climate, where kids feel safe, where there is intellectual safety and emotional safety."

His overall mantra is directed toward the students: ''We will not give up on them."

This school reflects the big picture in Boston: More than 80 percent who attend are black or Hispanic. Whatever their life situation, they ''come here to learn," said Meadows, and encouragement is part of the curriculum. In a humanities class, the teacher told each student she called upon: ''I'm proud of you." In a precalculus class, student volunteers stood confidently at the blackboard to show how they arrived at a solution.

There is order as students change classes, something the kids appreciate. ''It's calm," said William Troncoso, 18, of Roslindale, when asked what he liked about this newly configured high school. Even so, the peace of the morning math lesson was disturbed by a scuffle outside the classroom. A student's outburst had forced a school security officer to tackle him to the floor, leaving Meadows to sort out what happened as the class quietly returned to work.

A new principal's zeal is tempered by certain realities. That morning, the school began distributing 200 laptops -- not enough for every student. The computers are a learning tool, but ''a limited one," noted Meadows, since they can't go home. ''This is Boston," he said, ''Let's keep it real. These kids become targets" if they carry a laptop into their neighborhood. For the kids, enthusiasm over the laptops quickly turned to disappointment when they couldn't immediately use them; the school librarian figured out that the network was down.

Meadows labels much of what he handles on a daily basis as ''facilities issues." Indeed, the first chunk of his day was spent trying to locate a television and VCR. In one classroom, a teacher walked up to him in search of a wrench: ''My tables are falling apart," she said. Inside the building, many students wore coats. Why? ''This building is cold," explained Meadows. Besides, some students are reluctant to put possessions in lockers because they fear they will be broken into, he said.

Maura Hennigan, Menino's mayoral opponent, did not get much political mileage out of proposals to rethink the school day and turn the schools into all-day learning centers, with arts and meals for children and evening classes for parents. Yet Hennigan was addressing the key issue, beyond education, that principals like Meadows confront daily: The life many students have after school is baggage they carry back into school.

Menino began his tenure in City Hall urging Boston to ''judge me harshly" if the schools did not improve. While there is improvement, gains are modest. During the muted mayoral campaign, Hennigan correctly observed that Boston is losing its middle-class and affluent parents and becoming a highly segregated, high-poverty system. Asked about it during the campaign, Menino attributed declining enrollment to ''smaller families," an answer that is disingenuous, at best.

In victory, Menino is now pledging to close the achievement gap between white and minority students. That goal is less about dreaming and more about directing money, resources, and energy to a cause even the best-intended mayors and educators have yet to figure out how to resolve.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is

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