South Boston High--From 'War Zone' to School

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As far as I was concerned, there was ethnic and religious bias in the plan of the state department of education--get South Boston. South Boston symbolized white racism. Well, it didn't symbolize it any more than anywhere else in America. ... It was a self-fulfilling prophecy.--John Coakley, Boston Public Schools.

South Boston. The Irish enclave in a city where ethnicity is a password. The neighborhood's high school, South Boston High, had never enrolled a black student before 1974 but was paired with the largely black area of Roxbury for court-ordered desegregation purposes.

The pairing sparked an explosion at South Boston High that offered the public an image of white resistance to busing in the North as dramatic as George Wallace's defiant stand in a school doorway in the South.

During the height of the tension in 1974, some 140 uniformed police officers were assigned to the school, metal detectors were placed in the lobby, and fewer than half of the school's 1,500 students were showing up for class.

Many school officials wanted the building closed down and the students dispersed to other districts. Instead, Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr., after visiting the school in 1975, decided to monitor the school's day-to-day activities by placing it in receiv-ership, a move that gave him direct legal responsibility for its governance. That order was not lifted until three years later.

Less Absenteeism, Dropouts

Now the 86-year-old school is about 40-percent black, 30-percent white, 16-percent Hispanic, and 13-percent Asian. It is still a rough school--40 to 50 percent of its 950 students come from homes where no one has a regular job, says Headmaster Jerome Winegar.

But its absentee rate is one of the lowest in the city, with average attendance at around 80 percent daily; its dropout rate has decreased; and its average reading and mathematics scores have risen from the mid-teens to around the 30th percentile since 1976, Mr. Winegar says.

The transition has not been easy. Mr. Winegar, who came to the school in 1976 fresh from running an alternative school in St. Paul, Minn., was protected by bodyguards for the first few months after he was subjected to death threats. And in 1978, his car was firebombed.

"When I first came here, everyone hated me," he says. "I was the enemy."

Now, on the wall of his office amid newspaper clippings is a certificate that reads: "Thank you for making us proud of our school--the Graduating Class of 1980."

'Everyone Can Learn'

"I have a lot of theories about schools," explains the tall, big-framed headmaster. "I believe everyone can learn."

Not one to stay hidden away in his office, Mr. Winegar greets the students every morning as they enter the huge old building and shake snow off their jackets, grumbling because the buses picked them up late.

He knows most of the teen-agers by name, and has instituted a system of paperwork so that almost every request a student has--from applying for work-study to excused-absence slips--must be signed by him. That way, he says, he keeps track from day to day of what students are doing, where they are improving, and where they are falling behind.

Holistic Health Care

On one school day recently, two young black girls arrive holding small blanketed bundles. They are sisters who have babies born a month apart. They are bringing them to school for the day for a session on child care with the visiting nurse. The next day the babies will stay home, though the mothers, Mr. Winegar hopes, will return.

"We've instituted a whole range of social services," he says. "We believe in a holistic health curriculum."

The school also has an alternative program called a "School Within a School" for 90 students who do not function well in a regular class set-ting, Mr. Winegar says. The less structured situation allows them to move around and talk, but they learn at the same rate--and sometimes faster--than the students in regular classes, he claims.

Job Help

In the library, some members of the staff are preparing a "Get-A-Job Workshop," which for the past four years has helped teach students how to dress and act during interviews. Last summer, about 200 students were placed in summer jobs through the school, and more jobs were available that simply were not filled, according to Mr. Wineger.

Some students learn the skills of cooking, spending much of their day in a commercial cooking class that sells lunches to the teachers who choose to avoid the school cafeteria and provides free lunches for senior citizens every Friday.

Discipline is enforced at "Southie" as part of Mr. Winegar's strategy to make the school a community again. A pupil who wanders in late is told to go home--she has been tardy one too many times, a counselor explains. The restrooms are locked during class time so they do not become hang-outs for gangs. And any student caught with a gun or knife is arrested.

"If a crime committed here is a crime out in the real world, we arrest them," Mr. Wineger says.

'The Benchmark'

These days, however, instead of 140 uniformed police, six security guards recruited from the neighbor-hood watch over the school. The last full-scale racial problem was in 1980, Mr. Winneger says, and it involved only about 50 students. Now, fights are just "over what kids fight about," he says.

The school has become a school again, rather than a war zone, say those who have seen it change over the past 10 years.

"The people who spit in my face when I first went there served me cookies when I went two years ago and came up to make sure I understood that it was their school and they liked it," says Robert A. Dentler, expert adviser to Judge Garrity. "South Boston is the benchmark."

Vol. 04, Issue 25

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