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Boston's dynamic school chief. Laval Wilson aims to revolutionize Hub's public education

By Luix OverbeaStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 11, 1986



Boston

When Laval S. Wilson takes on a project, he expects to succeed. He has taken on a task that two years ago no one would have suspected he would ever get. He is superintendent of Boston's public schools. Dr. Wilson's goal is to revolutionize the Boston school system. Its officials had agonized through 11 years of court-ordered school desegregation with US District Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. as watchdog when Wilson came aboard a year ago.

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It was no surprise to see him and Mayor Raymond L. Flynn enter the Thompson Middle School when school opened a week ago. They wanted to witness the birth of a new program, Project Promise, designed to help junior high school students. In Project Promise pupils attend school two hours longer each day (except Fridays) and three hours on Saturdays.

Wilson spoke to students briefly.

``We're here to make you the best students. This program is planned to help you, not just to make you spend more time in school.''

Three years ago the typical Boston employer dismissed most graduates of local public high schools as unemployable. Wilson's goal is to reverse that attitude.

``Every high school graduate should be able to get an entry-level job, . . . fill out a job application, . . . [and] perform intelligently on a college-entrance examination,'' he says.

Wilson has set these goals for himself and city schools.

He has rallied a surprising collection of allies. They include ``the Vault,'' a group of the city's financial leaders, who yesterday announced a $6 million program to assure city high school graduates money for a college education and jobs after earning their degrees.

Private enterprise, major colleges and universities, and key cultural institutions, partners to city schools in Judge Garrity's program, are continuing these roles with Wilson. Parents, community agencies, and students support him.

In his office Wilson mentions figures he hopes to change: a dropout rate of 29.5 percent for the class of 1983; another 20 percent who transferred out of the system.

``Project Promise also provides the extras -- computer training, how to take tests, and subjects students propose,'' he says. ``Teachers involved want to participate. We all want students to increase their scores on college entrance and standardized tests.''

As schools open nationwide, various systems are taking steps to handle desegregation, ranging from crosstown busing in San Jose, Calif., to a return to neighborhood elementary schools in Norfolk, Va.

Wilson is working to ease the Boston schools from the persistent problem of racial segregation into a system that returns to the basics -- reading, computation, and communication. He demands that all teachers and administrators adhere to this this principle:

``All children can learn. All schools can be effective.''

These words are the key to the Boston Education Plan, Wilson's 16-point program to move Boston's high school graduates into the economic mainstream.

``I feel very good about this plan.'' As he talks in his office, Wilson removes his coat, exposing colorful suspenders. ``A man can work only in his shirtsleeves,'' he says and recalls that he grew up in Chicago's black ghetto and attended Du Sable High School on the South Side, similar to ghetto schools in Boston.

During his first year in office, Wilson has organized a planning team. It works with project managers who lead the 16 planning initiatives that run the gamut: from adolescent issues to counseling and guidance of students to professional development of teachers and administrators to desegregation to improved writing.

``Boston is in the process of revamping downtown, revitalizing neighborhoods, and attracting new businesses,'' Wilson says. ``What good are all these changes if our educational system is archaic and does not prepare replacements for the creative people of today?''

``It won't be easy to change, I know,'' he says.

As he talks Wilson is alert to telephone calls. Teachers are threatening a one-day strike Friday. He checks the latest developments in negotiations. He already has the approval of the school board to close schools if teachers do walk out.

Public debate over his first priority, adolescent issues, has hit the streets.

``I won't support distribution of contraceptives . . . in the public schools,'' declares Jack E. Robinson, president of the Boston branch, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. ``If this becomes part of the school plan, I'll seek a referendum to ban the passing of this material to schoolchildren,'' chimes in Joseph Casper, a school board member who opposes the NAACP on many issues.

Issues do pop up, admits Wilson. ``All I can say is -- don't let these questions sidetrack us. I advise outsiders that they should see the whole plan before they talk about one controversial point.''

The school department has already faced flak on the closing of certain schools, the moving of some programs, and the pending teacher job action.