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Pride in Ownership

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The section of Boston that encompasses the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative is home to some of the city's least--and most--promising schools.

In December of last year, new district "report cards" placed several schools here in the middle or lower third of the pack in reading and mathematics. But the area also boasts a handful of the city's higher-performing schools, and still others have made strides under new leadership in recent years.

Principal Mary Russo at Roxbury's Samuel W. Mason Elementary has won recognition for the innovative programs that have transformed the once-failing school into one of the most sought-after in the district. But she's quick to acknowledge that she couldn't have done it alone. Community and business partnerships have helped her scout out funds for building renovations, computers, and even neighborhood improvements like the new playground in a park across the street.

The Dudley community-development effort, she says, is one of those partnerships. "What the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative has captured is the ability to approach a school or community organization and extend that hand of friendship."

Parents who have become active in their children's schools are also reaping the benefits. Gladys Centeno, a bookkeeper at the Dudley Street project office, says she's seen her daughter Makia's grades and spirits soar since she moved here and took on a leadership role at the Phillis Wheatley Middle School.

One of the most vivid examples of the project's reach, though, comes by way of Debra Wilson's story.

Wilson's oldest son, Bobby, now 16, had been mainstreamed out of special-education classes at Wheatley in the 7th grade and was thriving at Dorchester's Jeremiah E. Burke High. So Wilson was dismayed when she learned that his high school was losing its accreditation.

As she became more involved at school, Wilson soon discovered that years of neglect, budget cuts, and unstable leadership had left Burke High in a state of total disrepair. It was dirty and dingy, infested with rodents, and had no drinking water. Paint was peeling, and doors and windows were broken. Despite a core of committed teachers, the staff had no coherent curriculum or reform strategy to direct them.

The sense of pride and ownership Wilson felt when she bought a new home in the Dudley Street neighborhood buoyed her commitment to her two sons' education. And the changes she saw community activists bring to Dudley Street gave her the courage to speak out.

"I think they believed that parents were not going to kick and scream," she says of the school's accreditation status. "But I felt as a parent I had somehow let my kids down."

So Wilson and John Young, who serve as co-chairs of Burke High's parent council, teamed up with a handful of other parents to file a civil complaint against the Boston school system last year. It alleged that Burke High, which enrolls the largest percentage of minority students in the district, received fewer resources and services than those with larger proportions of white students.

On a visit to investigate, Mayor Thomas M. Menino narrowly missed getting plunked in the head with a piece of ceiling tile. While it may take many more months to win back Burke High's accreditation, a resolution to the complaint has already committed some $4 million for school improvements and another $2 million for a school technology plan. Between July and September of this past year, work crews transformed Burke High's grimy, gray interior with a top-to-bottom scrubbing and coat of shining tan paint, restored all its basic amenities, and added several new features, including an expanded library chock full of new books and additional offices for more guidance counselors.

Steven Leonard, a new principal whom parents helped pick, arrived with an ambitious agenda and a track record for turning around troubled schools. And in January, Mayor Menino chose Burke High as the site for his State of the City Address, which pledged to make education a top priority. "That was our shining glory," Wilson recalls.

Pulling into the driveway of her new three-bedroom home, Wilson can't help remembering when this whole five-block area was vacant land covered with trash and weeds. The house, which she shares with her sons and grandmother, has an enclosed yard ideal for family cookouts and bay windows that showcase the many academic and community awards Bobby and 12-year-old Jeffrey have won.

Watching the recent premiere of a documentary about Dudley Street's history, Wilson says, reminded her that "there is power when you unite and voice your opinion."

"We need to talk about how, as parents, we can reclaim our schools, the same way you take back vacant land," she says. "You can't just go snatching away our resources."

--Deborah L. Cohen

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