School fit for a president

TechBoston, where test scores soared, set to greet Obama

Wadson Dorinvin of the grounds crew cleaned up at an entrance to TechBoston Academy in Dorchester. Wadson Dorinvin of the grounds crew cleaned up at an entrance to TechBoston Academy in Dorchester. (Bill Greene/ Globe Staff)
By Andrew Ryan and Meghan E. Irons
Globe Staff / March 8, 2011

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President Obama this afternoon will bestow the ultimate validation to TechBoston Academy in Dorchester, touring the technology-driven high school to highlight a striking but uncommon success story in urban education.

Since 2002, the school has drawn from the populations that traditionally struggle in the classroom, students from tough neighborhoods and low-income backgrounds. Many have special needs and one-third come from homes where English is not the first language.

But performance measures at TechBoston have soared. The 83 percent graduation rate is 20 percentage points higher than the citywide average.

“I think it’s very, very validating for our kids and the faculty that they are being chosen on the merit of their hard work,’’ said TechBoston’s headmaster, Mary Skipper. “It’s pride, pride in a healthy way.’’

That pride showed yesterday on the faces of students like David Turner, who said he planned to wear a suit to school today. Jarell Small will comb out his cornrows. And Bianca Williams and Bellagia Williams will don TechBoston Academy colors — maroon, black, and gray.

“I’m kind of pumped,’’ said a classmate, Thomas Pyke, of Obama’s visit to the school. “I don’t know. I can’t explain it. It’s really weird.’’

The Obama administration selected the school for the site of a presidential speech not just because of its spirit or high test scores.

The academy was one of Boston’s first pilot schools, which means its headmaster has unique flexibility that would allow her, for example, to buy laptops for each student, make the day longer than typical city schools, and tailor curriculums to address shortcomings of individual students.

Perhaps more central to Obama’s message today, TechBoston was created by a unique collaboration between government, philanthropy, and private industry.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and The Boston Foundation helped provide seed money to launch the school, which is now largely funded by the city.

Partnerships with private businesses have continued to nurture the academy as it has grown from 75 students in 2002 to almost 800 this year, with an upper and lower campus with students in grades 6 through 12. Help has come from Microsoft, which donates software and sponsors think tanks for teachers.

Cisco helped build a wireless network in every classroom. And local colleges such as the University of Massachusetts Boston have sent some of their brightest graduate students to the school as part of a yearlong teaching residency.

“We are using this success story as a model for rapidly improving all of our schools in Boston,’’ Mayor Thomas M. Menino said in a statement.

“President Obama’s visit showcases their success and sets a high bar for the rest of the nation.’’

When Obama, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and Melinda Gates tour the school this afternoon, they will walk into the old “Dot High.’’

The roots of that school, formally known as Dorchester High School, date to 1852 and its alumni include Ray Bolger, who played the Scarecrow in the film “The Wizard of Oz,’’ and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, mother of a president and US senators.

By the early 2000s, however, Dorchester High was on the verge of being taken over by the state because it was failing academically, Skipper said.

Boston split it into three smaller schools including TechBoston Academy.

Although many students arrive at TechBoston behind their peers on an academic level, they are able to catch up, graduate, and go on to college.

The college acceptance rate is about 95 percent, Skipper said.

TechBoston and Dorchester Academy, the other high school at that site, will be dismissed at 11 a.m. today so the building can be prepared for the president.

Some students will return for the visit later in the day.

“It’s going to be an experience in a lifetime,’’ said Leroy Powell a 17-year-old TechBoston junior. “The president [is] coming to our school.’’

Peter Schworm of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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