A school’s roller coaster ride ends

Once considered one of Boston’s best, underperforming Lewenberg closes its doors

Slated to be closed this month, Solomon Lewenberg Middle School held its last eighth-grade graduation June 15. From left, Xavier Gray, Khallil Hawkins, Tywanna Holleyhendren, and Jean Isme waited in the hall before the ceremony began. Slated to be closed this month, Solomon Lewenberg Middle School held its last eighth-grade graduation June 15. From left, Xavier Gray, Khallil Hawkins, Tywanna Holleyhendren, and Jean Isme waited in the hall before the ceremony began. (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)
By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / June 27, 2009
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The whir of power saws and the pounding of hammers echo through the basement of Mattapan’s Solomon Lewenberg Middle School. Floors are being torn up and walls are coming down. The old science labs upstairs will finally be fitted with modern technology, while dingy, peeling paint will be scraped away for a brighter color.

The extreme makeover is taking place as the Lewenberg bid farewell yesterday to its final classes. As part of a district overhaul, the once-revered school will be replaced in the fall by the Young Achievers Science and Mathematics Pilot K-8 School, an academic powerhouse that needs a larger building to absorb a waiting list of students.

The shakeup is not the kind of ending some had wanted for the Lewenberg. At one time, the stately brick building, atop a hill just beyond Blue Hill Avenue, was a nationally recognized symbol of urban school promise. In the mid-1980s, as crime plagued the surrounding area, the Lewenberg skyrocketed from one of the city’s worst middle schools to one of its best.

But it ultimately slid back into decline as busing patterns, school leadership, and education policy changed.

The Lewenberg’s roller coaster ride illustrates the fragility of urban school success. It could also serve as a cautionary tale as Superintendent Carol R. Johnson proceeds with her bold plan to restructure the school district and its bus routes, part of an effort to improve schools and cut costs.

“Every school district in the nation is examining the lowest-performing schools and looking for ways to turn them into high-achieving ones,’’ Johnson said. “It’s not magic. The conversions do take work.’’

While many community activists, educators, and parents applaud the effort to improve, some worry it could devolve into a game of spinning plates. In the past, they said, as the district has shifted attention to the worst schools, officials have allowed more successful schools like the Lewenberg to slide.

“There have been empty promises,’’ said Barbara Fields, an executive board member of the Black Educators Alliance of Massachusetts.

The fervor of construction at the Lewenberg, at a cost of $2.3 million, has stung many of the departing teachers, who wonder if an earlier investment could have helped restore their school’s glory.

Thomas Parks, a special education teacher and a Lewenberg graduate, ventured down memory lane recently as he flipped through several yearbooks from more than a decade ago.

The school “worked like magic at one time,’’ he said. “It’s amazing how much things can change.’’

Named after a prominent Jewish attorney and community leader who died of pneumonia in 1922, the Lewenberg opened a few years later, at a time when Mattapan had a large Jewish community. In its early decades, Lewenberg students routinely earned admission to the city’s premier high schools of the time.

But academic achievement deteriorated as street violence swept across Mattapan. By the 1970s, the school had earned the nickname “Looneyberg’’ for its rowdy students and a schoolyard littered with discarded kitchen appliances and other junk. The Lewenberg was teetering on the brink of closure in 1984 when the school district undertook a last-minute save, installing a highly energetic principal, Thomas O’Neill.

And what a save he made.

Seemingly overnight, O’Neill accomplished a Herculean turnaround. A year after his appointment, he had boosted the Lewenberg’s score on a state writing test from the bottom of the city’s middle schools to the top. Math scores also took off. Impressed, the district took the school citywide as one of its highly coveted magnet schools, while national accolades began to pour in.

Visitors marveled at how the tail of a “reading dragon’’ in the lobby twisted and turned down the corridors as students attached a color triangular scale with the name of a recently finished book. They commented on the sense of teamwork among students and staff, the result of working together in completing rope courses, climbing walls, and other Project Adventure activities in the gym.

The school also offered art, music, and other special courses that focused on hands-on projects rather than lectures. And staff and parents cleared the junk from the schoolyard, planting flowering trees that still blossom today.

But then the landscape shifted again, and kept shifting. As part of a sweeping overhaul in 1989, the district enacted the three-zone school assignment map, which took away the Lewenberg’s citywide status, eventually filling classrooms with fewer high-achieving students and more Mattapan children growing up in a difficult environment.

The premiere of the MCAS exam in 1998, a few years after O’Neill’s departure, put a new strain on students and teachers, as scores failed to measure up to state standards. The arts programs and much of Project Adventure fell victim to budget cuts and realigned priorities. The dragon was dismantled.

Three years ago, the state declared the Lewenberg an underperforming school, despite the leadership of a dynamic principal, Myrtlene Mayfield, whom the district had faith in.

While some teachers complained that the school had become a dumping ground for the district’s worst students, Mayfield said she would not entertain such talk during her tenure, which ended last year.

But she acknowledged that many of her students were confronting problems, such as poverty and neighborhood violence, that can overwhelm schools.

“We just didn’t have enough resources to meet all the demands placed on schools - not just at the Lewenberg, but all schools,’’ Mayfield said.

Whispers of a possible closure came at the start of this past school year when principal Andy Tuite arrived, fresh off a stint shutting down the Cleveland Middle School. A nervous Lewenberg staff dubbed him “The Closer.’’ Tuite called a meeting, assuring staff that was not his agenda. Tension eased.

Then a few weeks later, Johnson called to say that she would be announcing a sweeping overhaul of district schools that night, including several closings. Young Achievers would replace Lewenberg.

Anger erupted, but no movement emerged to save the school. Parents at the school’s final graduation earlier this month said they were saddened by the closure.

“Every teacher I’ve dealt with literally takes their work with children personally - your child is their child,’’ said Danya Best, a Northeastern University chef from Dorchester whose daughter, Dayanna, graduated. “Every teacher showed an extra effort to get her here.’’

Demoralized teachers have nicknamed the closing the “takeover.’’ Young Achievers refers to it as the “merger’’ because the pilot school will absorb Lewenberg students who choose to remain. While Young Achievers was interested in hiring some Lewenberg teachers, all are planning to go elsewhere.

In a way, Young Achievers could restore the spirit of the old Lewenberg. Young Achievers stresses project-based learning that defined Lewenberg’s glory days, and has a vibrant art and music program.

But in an eerie echo of what happened to Lewenberg 20 years ago when it lost its citywide status, Young Achievers also will become a zone-specific school, drawing from a smaller pool of students.

“Change is hard for everyone,’’ principal Virginia Chalmers said.

The Lewenberg’s demise caught the namesake’s grandson, Stephen Solomon Lewenberg, by surprise when he was contacted by the Globe this week. Although Johnson told him Young Achievers was moving into the building, he said she never mentioned the Lewenberg name would disappear.

Said Lewenberg, “This would be the end of an era.’’