All In The Family

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This is the first of two articles on schools that have taken the ideas of author and education reformer Theodore Sizer and put them into practice.

On a snowy day in December, a new student arrives at Boston's Fenway Middle College High School just as an all-school assembly is about to begin. Another student introduces the tall youth to assistant director Linda Nathan, who is standing near them in the auditorium. She shakes his hand. The handshake is a quick act, easy to miss, and yet there is something remarkable about it: It is the same kind of handshake Nathan would give an adult.

More commonly, a minority inner-city teenager would be greeted coolly, if not with automatic suspicion. But Nathan's greeting extends matter-of-fact respect. Fleeting expressions cross their faces before the two turn away. Hers seems to say: "I'm glad he showed up.'' His: "I just might like it here.''

The teenager may not know it yet, but he is not just entering a new school. He is meeting "family.''

Because of its unusual location--tucked inside a bustling community college--Fenway doesn't look, feel, or operate like a traditional high school. That's what makes it appealing to the students who call it home.

The school began in 1983 as an experimental program inside the walls of another school--Boston's English High School. Created to reach at-risk students, the Fenway Program, as it was then called, offered innovative curricula, flexible scheduling, and most importantly, a supportive and personalized environment. Although the 10th-12th grade program was not always popular with other educators (some teachers at English High dubbed it "Funway''), the Fenway family began to grow.

In the summer of 1990, when building-related problems forced English High to move to a smaller facility, the alternative program found itself scrambling to find a new home. It finally found one in Bunker Hill Community College. Now, the Fenway Program has a new name, Fenway Middle College High School, and the experiment continues.

If you go in search of Fenway, what you see is Bunker Hill. The college occupies a drab, hulky building that lies just 100 steps from a subway stop on the border of Boston's industrial side.

In a city that is steeped in ivy and cobblestones and graced with historic landmarks, a city that has given birth to two of the world's most prestigious universities, a city so preppy that its public high school principals are called headmasters, the concrete community college stands out like a pigeon among peacocks.

Fenway, however, does not stand out. Other than a small green sign embossed with the words Fenway Middle College High School, it's hard to find anything that "says'' high school. Many of its classes are held in one small wing, but some are held in other corners of the huge maze. There are no lockers or school-colored banners adorning the halls, no choral strains or band music, no football players or cheerleaders. The linoleum floors, industrial-strength carpeting, budget desks and chairs, and plain walls carry a businesslike, get-the-work-done message.

Washed over everything at Bunker Hill--and, therefore, Fenway--is the grown-up air that comes when students actually have to pay for their education. Of course, Fenway students don't have to pay because the alternative school is still part of the Boston public school system.

The 160-member student body is diverse--a mix of black, Hispanic, white, and Asian students. They do share a kind of older, tougher look. In the smoky student lounge, it's hard to tell Fenway students from the college students. But the thing that most unites Fenway students is perhaps best expressed by 17-year-old sophomore Charlene Hampton: "We are people who couldn't work with the system.''

Few vestiges of "the system'' are apparent at Fenway. What is dramatically apparent, however, is the relationship between students and teachers. Concern, support, and respect are as visible in this high school as athletic trophies are in others.

Take what is happening in teacher Mary Carr's class. "Good for you, Antonia, braving this weather!'' Carr exclaims as a late student trudges into her environmental issues class. Because of the snow, Bunker Hill has delayed the opening of the college. But the Boston public school system did not alter schedules, so Fenway students are supposed to be on time. Only about half of Carr's students show up. The blond, frizzy-haired teacher walks up to another girl who has just arrived and kisses her affectionately on both cheeks. Then the two of them put their foreheads together and talk in whispers.

A tall, handsome boy enters the room as if sleepwalking. "How are they? Did you get any sleep?'' Carr asks him with a grin. "He has twin boys at home,'' she explains without judgment. The student smiles broadly. They chat for a moment about his family and then shift into a conversation about school work.

Although Carr teaches science, she knows what is happening in her students' other classes. "I want to read those stories you are writing for humanities,'' she says to the whole group.

Not all Fenway teachers are as physically demonstrative as Carr, but, in general, the bond among people is close. They seem to know and like each other, and that includes Nathan and director Larry Myatt, the two administrators. "Over here, the principal knows our names,'' says a sophomore clad in a leather jacket, blue jeans, and cap. "Over there,'' he adds, referring to his former, traditional high school, "the principal only knew your name if you were one of the worst kids in the school.''

Myatt and Nathan do seem to know everybody. As they walk the halls, they stop often to chat or get involved in serious discussions. Because each chooses to continue teaching--Myatt humanities and Nathan drama--they are a part of, not apart from, the teaching staff. When students talk affectionately about their teachers, both Nathan and Myatt are included. Today after Myatt's class, a student invites him to dinner at her family's restaurant.

The familial feeling at Fenway is one of the main reasons students choose it. For many, the school provides what home does not. A quiet senior who wishes to remain unnamed explains how her life is at home: "I feel like I'm on my own. I don't have anyone to push me or be there for me. Any problems that come up, I have to handle on my own.''

At Fenway, the senior says, teachers are supportive. Last year, for example, when her school work began to falter because of complications at home, Nathan noticed. "Ms. Nathan found a mentor for me to talk with,'' she says with a small smile. "It helped me through. I still talk to her.''

The 10 percent of Fenway students who have babies of their own feel a sense of support, as well. They are encouraged to keep coming to school, even if only on a part-time basis. And when the children are brought to school, for a special event, say, or because of an unexpected child-care problem, the little ones simply become part of the extended family.

Although the majority of Fenway's students are considered at-risk, many are not. As Fenway's reputation spreads, an increasing number of students who are disillusioned with Boston's exam schools are choosing to enroll in the alternative program.

With clear distaste, several students describe the snobbery, racism, and impersonal atmosphere they found at the public prep schools, known as exam schools because they require entrance exams. "They only focus on the smartest kids,'' one student says. "There, everybody has to follow a model, be a robot,'' another adds. "If a bunch of black kids were in the hallway,'' one black student complains, "they'd automatically call three security guards.''

Their criticisms highlight what they like about their current school: At Fenway, everyone counts.

As warm and supportive as Fenway is, its teachers don't forget that it is still a high school, a place for learning. Not surprisingly, its academic program is also atypical. Director Myatt, who was involved in the original development of Fenway, calls it an "organized abandonment of aspects of the traditional system'' partly inspired by Theodore Sizer's book Horace's Compromise. In fact, the school has recently become an active member of Sizer's Coalition for Essential Schools, one of the nation's largest school-based reform efforts.

Classes are small and longer than the standard 50-minute high school period. Students are assessed not on the basis of standardized tests but on portfolios and exhibitions of their work, as well as attendance. An advisory period, built into every other day, gives teachers and students time to talk about personal and social concerns, such as health, stress, and career development.

Scheduling is flexible. Today at a staff meeting, for example, teachers agree that the last classes of the day are at a disadvantage because of truancy. In the blink of an eye, they decide to flip 2nd and 5th periods one day a week to try to even things out a bit.

The curriculum is issue-based, often interdisciplinary, and broad in scope. Even math and science, the subjects Fenway treats in the most traditional way, have their unique twists. The mathematics specialty areas are integrated, meaning that students, instead of studying algebra one year and geometry the next, study all disciplines all year. The science curriculum not only offers the traditional biology and chemistry but also an environmental-issues course and an indepth study of medical ethics and critical thinking.

History, literature, and English are combined in a single humanities course that all students take-- regardless of grade level. Each year, all classes are given one question to study in depth. This year, it is: "Who is an American?''

Today, in Eileen Shakespear's humanities class, students continue an ongoing debate about how immigration--legal and illegal--affects who is an American. They discuss El Norte, a chilling movie about a Guatemalan family's struggle to cross the Mexican border into the United States. Shakespear weaves in a more current event--the exodus from Haiti. A recent article from The New York Times that Shakespear has photocopied is read and analyzed, both for content and vocabulary.

Each student is also researching and writing the personal history of one American's ethnic roots. Most have chosen a parent, grandparent, or other relative. Some will write about themselves.

The fact that the entire student body and staff are all chewing on the same theme means that extended dialogue and even broader interdisciplinary applications are inevitable. Nathan, for example, is putting out the word that she plans to use the family histories as raw material for her drama class. "We'll weave them together into a kind of play,'' she tells six students who have just finished rehearsing dramatic monologues from a one-act play.

Humanities isn't the only place for all-school ventures. Comprehensive projects are carried out in other subject areas, as well. As part of a project with Tufts University and three other area high schools, Fenway science teachers and students will spend months working with graduate students in preparation for a spring seminar on how environmental problems affect international security.

Earlier this week, a Tufts professor showed the students a film about the desertification of Mexico and the impact it's having on local peasants. Nathan, seeing an opportunity for interdisciplinary connections, jumped in at one point to link the new information to Fenway's environmental science curriculum and the immigration issues students have been studying in humanities.

What happens to Fenway students after graduation is not a topic relegated to the guidance office as it is in some schools. At Fenway, one sophomore states, "They prepare you for life.''

In addition to volunteer work at soup kitchens, nursing homes, and the like, students are eased into the workplace through a collaborative project with Boston's Children's Hospital. The hospital provides onthe-job work experience, and special in-school courses teach students the necessary skills. All seniors complete a full-time internship in an area that interests them, such as radiography, pharmacology, or nursing. Juniors are eligible for part-time internships and are often offered paid summer jobs.

The collaborative, which was developed by Nathan and science teacher Scott Eddleman, gives students the chance to shadow various hospital staff members and write about their work, as well as the opportunity to complete a scientific research project using hospital staff as a resource. The hospital tries to place interested graduates and support their continuing education.

There are also advantages to the school's close relationship with Bunker Hill Community College. All students have access to Bunker Hill's library, and those who qualify can take college courses for credit. But perhaps more important is what the students gain from simply being in a collegiate setting. Bulletin boards advertise discussion groups and the college's production of The Crucible. And conveniently, some of the college's classrooms are equipped with huge plate-glass windows. So, as Fenway students pass by Graphics D101, they can't help but notice that students who look like they do are hard at work at drafting tables, plotting out graphic designs. High school students who have never thought much about college suddenly find it right under their noses. Even if the students don't take advantage of the library or attend any plays, they are at least exposed to a stimulating academic environment.

Fenway is a high school where students are treated like adults and their opinions respected. One result is that hostility between students and teachers is extremely rare. When Shakespear was assigned to the Fenway Program six years ago, it was "like going to heaven,'' she recalls.

"There is a different feeling here,'' she says. "It's an ethos that comes from the kids; it's not OK to treat the teacher badly. It's a clich that if you get respect, you will want to give it. But it's true.''

Still, it would be wrong to think of Fenway as a wonderland where tough, troubled young people turn into models of perfect behavior. The school has its problems. As one student admits, "Here we get treated like adults, but we don't always act that way.''

That recently got the school into some trouble. A Fenway student used some offensive language that outraged members of Bunker Hill's clerical staff. They complained, and the incident snowballed into a full-blown conflict. "It was a tough week,'' Nathan recalls. The Fenway community came together for "town meetings'' to discuss the situation. "The kids,'' Nathan says, "wrote a powerful letter, which was published in Bunker Hill's newspaper, about owning their own behavior and wanting to be part of the Bunker Hill community.'' Students began policing each other, and behavior improved in the hallways and the smoking lounge, the only two problem areas. The uproar subsided.

Although this kind of brouhaha is rare, Fenway teachers acknowledge that their students' behavioral inconsistencies are a daily challenge. No matter how enthusiastically Carr cheers, students still fail to show up for class. No matter how much respect Shakespear dishes out, students still arrive sans pencil or paper. Teachers are constantly having to decide whether to hold their students' hands or "slap their wrists.''

"We're ambivalent about that as a group,'' admits Shakespear. The ambivalence, she says, lies in the complexities of their students' lives. "You want to yell at him because he forgot his notebook,'' she says. "Sometimes you do. But then you also know that this kid has had a long history of not succeeding in school. Things like yelling at him because he doesn't have a notebook haven't worked in the past. You also know that sometimes small miracles can happen with a little generosity. So, sometimes you bend over backward and give him a notebook.''

Although some administrators would see such ambivalence as weakness, Myatt doesn't. Some teachers are more apt to be forgiving than others, and that's OK, he says: "It makes for a nice chemistry.'' Because many of Fenway's students have troubled lives, Myatt believes that it's best to remain open and not stick to an arbitrary rule. "If you're absent four times and the rule says three, there is a conversation,'' he explains. "You aren't just lopped off.''

Every Tuesday afternoon, Nathan has arranged to have various Boston professionals teach electives so that the entire staff can meet and deal with individual problems and group concerns. This Tuesday, they talk about several students who seem to be fading away. Like paramedics, the teachers are willing to try anything to keep them "alive.'' There is the boy whose mom has "bailed out''; he can't seem to make it to class but seems interested in taking the GED. And there is the 18-year-old special education student who is trying to finish school and support himself. He makes $500 a month and has to pay $450 a month for his apartment. The staff brainstorms about how to find resources to help the two students.

And then there is the question of the talented girl who has dropped out of everything but her aerobics elective. "Too bad she can't be an assistant to the aerobics teacher,'' one teacher offers. "Why not?'' another asks. "I feel like we're her lifeline,'' a third teacher says softly. There are nods all around.

Sometimes, no matter how hard the teachers try, students do drop out. But the school also has many success stories. About 75 percent of the students graduate and 70 percent of those go on to two- or four-year colleges. And just two years ago, one graduate returned as a teacher. But most students experience another, less-quantifiable kind of success at Fenway. Shakespear calls it "deep'' success. "Overall,'' she says, "students finish as healthier people, emotionally, culturally, and intellectually.''

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Fenway is that it even exists. So often, progressive programs die young. The kind of learning that teachers and students experience in a non-traditional environment is not easily measured on standardized tests, and skeptics abound.

Fenway has had one advantage: a fair amount of administrative support. Sidney Smith, the headmaster of English High School who conceived of the program and hired Myatt to direct it, is still a kind of executive shepherd. "It has been my role and responsibility to protect the staff and deal with some of the administrative garbage,'' Smith says.

Still, it hasn't been an easy road for Myatt and Nathan. They have had to raise money, fight their way through mountains of red tape, and negotiate perilous political jungles to keep Fenway alive.

They've succeeded so far, and they have big plans for the future. Their goal: to be more than an 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. school. Many of their students are eligible for such services as free health care or assistance from a social worker but don't, or can't, take advantage of it. Myatt and Nathan want to bring these social services onto the campus. If services were an integrated part of the school community, the two administrators say, they would be much more effective.

Nathan paints a possible picture of the future: "Imagine if Johnny can't do math 3rd period because of personal problems, and you have his social worker right there to respond to his needs.''

It's a grand vision, and one certainly in keeping with the Fenway spirit of tending to the heart as well as the mind.

Vol. 03, Issue 06, Page 1-24

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