On 175th Anniversary, English High Is Still Port of Entry to Boston

IT'S lunchtime at Boston's English High School, but Geneva Cooper doesn't have time to eat. In a sunny third-floor classroom buzzing with other students, she sits alone at a long table poring over a list of available scholarships.

It's not enough that this energetic senior is the likely valedictorian of her class and has already won a four-year, full-ride scholarship to Boston University. She's still applying for every scholarship available. No mere overachiever, she's driven by that most practical of reasons: providing for a family. Next year she'll have to support not only herself, but her eight-month old son. "I gotta pay the bills, baby," she says matter of factly.

Like Geneva, English High - a public school which is celebrating its 175th anniversary this month - is confronted with some of the tough realities common to urban life in America. As is the case in many schools nationwide, students test administrators with teen pregnancy, drugs, and gangs and their attendant violence. A tide of newly arrived immigrants brings between 30 and 60 languages to its classrooms.

Many such schools have responded with everything from metal detectors at the doors to costly bilingual programs and self-esteem training. Some have been less than successful, ending up as virtual police operations.

But others are like English, which has prospered despite its trials. Tonight, several hundred English alumni will fete the school's anniversary with a swanky shindig at Boston's Four Seasons Hotel. And they have good reason to celebrate.

After decades of being lauded for its tough curriculum and graduating the likes of banker J.P. Morgan, airplane-engine inventor Samuel Langley, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, and even Star Trek superhero Leonard Nimoy, English began to slip.

By the 1980s, it was better known for the chaos in its halls than the accomplishments of its graduates. It had one of the highest violence rates in the city and on any given day, up to a quarter of its 1,200 students came late or skipped class altogether.

But the school seems to be putting that era firmly in the past. Drawing on its long record of adaptation, innovation, and gritty determination, it has begun to shed its reputation as a dangerous, decrepit school. "It's the place to be," one student says.

Dawn of a new day

It's 4:30 a.m. and still dark. Headmaster Gerry Sullivan swings open the thick metal door of his building - a modern brick and glass behemoth that contrasts starkly with the shabby check-cashing and liquor stores around it in Jamaica Plain, a poor and largely black and Hispanic section of Boston. Mr. Sullivan hurries to complete paperwork in the lull before a storm of kids begins swirling in at 7 a.m.

As the students arrive, the peripatetic Sullivan - an imposing figure at 6 feet 6 inches tall - is cruising the halls, walkie-talkie in hand. Despite 26 years in Boston's toughest schools, he's easygoing and quick to smile at the many students he knows by name. His "good mornings" are returned in Spanish and Russian.

Many girls arrive with backpacks on their shoulders and a baby on their hip. They head to a day-care center that's chock full of cribs and toys. There's room for only 21 children, though the waiting list has twice that many.

Day care is the most prominent of a coterie of social services - from free breakfast and lunch to parenting classes to a health-care clinic. It even has a student maternity leave policy: six to eight weeks off.

Social services in schools are an issue that irks many social conservatives, who say that combining education and such services brings down the quality of both - and legitimizes teen pregnancy and other undesirable behavior. Sullivan concedes the point, though only partially: "In one sense you want to say, 'Why are we doing this?' But on the other hand, some of these kids have babies and need to know how to react when the baby spits up in the middle of the night."

The services are a hit with students. Counselors helped persuade Geneva to push on despite having a baby. And they send a message that "after you have a baby all the doors don't close," says Migdalia Bruno, an ebullient friend of Geneva's.

Down to business

By 7:45 - when the school day begins - the discipline Sullivan insists on becomes evident. As one boy passes, Sullivan grabs his baseball cap. "It's disrespectful," he explains. It also avoids the presence of overt gang symbols. By 8 a.m., today's 50 or so latecomers are made to stand outside - let in by twos and threes only after stern reminders and a careful accounting of their tardiness.

Sullivan is tough, but he has the students' respect. They credit him with fostering a spirit of partnership rather than antagonism. "He trusts us," says one.

By official counts, English still has among the highest rates of crimes against people and property in Boston's schools. But students, administrators, and outside observers are quick to point out that those rates are coming down. By getting to know many of his charges, Sullivan has started to chip away at the anonymity that enables violence to proliferate.

Also critical in English's corralling of violence is student-run mediation. Whenever students - from rival gang members to feuding couples - conflict, they are encouraged to go in front of a student mediation board.

This kind of self-policing has strong roots at English. Soon after the Civil War, regiments of student cadets began regular marching drills on school grounds and patrolled the corridors. "If any wayward student was in the hall, these fellas would collar them," says Will Hynes, who graduated from English in 1948.

Indeed, Mr. Hynes remembers quite a different school. For a nickel, he boarded the streetcar in nearby Brighton to get to English, which still had a notoriously tough entrance exam. "English was a prestige school then," he recalls. "It prepared you for college, even when not so many people, especially girls, went to college."

English was started in 1821 with 101 boys. While Boston Latin was founded earlier, English lays claim to being the oldest school started by city officials. Its purpose was to prepare boys for success in commerce and industry, and its elite status made it something of a "feeder school" for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Perhaps English's biggest change came in the early 1960s, when the Boston School Committee decided it needed more schools that were open to all and abolished the exam requirement. That, combined with accepting girls in 1973 and the exodus of affluent whites to the suburbs, changed English forever.

Like city schools nationwide, its core students became middle- and working-class blacks and Hispanics. Today, they make up about 85 percent of students.

But one element common to English all along has been its many immigrants. "It's always been a melting pot," says Peter Powilatis, who graduated in 1957. First it was the newly arrived Irish, Italians, and Chinese. Today it is Somalis, Poles, and Russians.

In one third-floor classroom, a trio of Somali girls works on an assignment. Also in the room are kids from Russia, Ukraine, and Korea. The school receives five to six students a week who know little or no English.

Students are always devising ways to break past the language and cultural divides. In one afterschool program in the cavernous gym, groups of blacks, Hispanics, Somalis, and others take turns playing one another's music. They give out awards for the non-Somali who best dances to Somali music or the best non-Hispanic dancing to Hispanic music.

This kind of energy is typical - and is chipping away at the image of a high school gone awry. Perhaps the most hopeful sign is what English students claim is the growing reputation of the school among Boston's eighth-graders. "No one used to want to come here," Migdalia says. "Now the eighth-graders are all talking about English. They can't wait to get here."

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