Students at Boston High start out working part time in fast-food restaurants and other dead-end jobs -- but not because these "high-risk kids" aren't considered good enough for better jobs.
In fact, on average, more than 20 percent of the graduates from this 640 -pupil school go on to college every year. And the school's boast is that every graduate receives not just a high school diploma but a firm job offer -- not from McDonald's but typically from one of Boston's big insurance companies.
"The point in having them work at McDonald's," says Gerry Higgins after teaching for 11 years at Boston High, "is to be able to show them and tell them that "this is what you will be doing for the rest of your life if you don't start taking school seriously.'"
Joseph Ippolito, the headmaster, launched Boston High's extremely flexible work-study program in 1966. He began with 38 high school dropouts, slow learners, and other problem students, giving them the option of classes in the morning or the afternoon to fit in with jobs.
In his previous work as a teacher, he had found that students were dropping out "simply because their attention span was too short for a full day of school." As he explained, "I figured if we could induce them to come to school for half a day, then at least they would get some school rather than none."
But he is the first to point out that his work-study option is simply one answer for a particular type of young person. He explains that his students thrive on the small, tightly organized type of school he runs, with close supervision of students both in school and at their job sites. And he feels strongly that this school should be just one piece in the mosaic being offered by the city as a whole.
Before accepting a student for Boston High, Headmaster Ippolito meets with the student and his parents or guardians to make it clear that strict discipline is enforced within the school and on the job.
Students know they can keep their school-selected jobs only if they keep up with their schoolwork. The system works, he explains, because most of the students supply "an important segment of the family income, and some of these kids provide the extra money that keeps their family together." Hence, pressure to keep studying and working comes from the family as well as the school.
Boston High has six "job supervisors" who match the school's 640 half-day students with jobs. These specialists find new jobs until a student learns the lesson that what is needed to hold down a job is regular attendance and reasonable behavior.
Job supervisor Joseph Arangio says the young workers soon learn that "if you're not coming to work, you have got to telephone, and if you come to work, you don't come with a cigarette poking out over your ear." He explains further:
"We try to present a classroom situation which is relevant, so that if they don't perform in their schoolwork, they know that they are held strictly accountable. They learn in school and on the job that performance and success go together."
For 16-year-old Lewis Cheshire, the Boston High schedule means starting out at 6 a.m. on a two-hour bus ride from his Mattapan home to school. He has three hours at school for his math, reading, English, and health classes. Next comes a four-hour workday at Marriott Food Services in downtown Boston -- which can stretch out to mean he doesn't get home until 8 in the evening.
Alphonso Ancrum has an even longer day as part of a 7-month-old work-study program. He's bused to a hospital job along with 20 other students after their morning classes -- and then ends his day with evening classes, because he's determined to go on to college.
Joe Arangio recognizes that the work-study means fewer hours in the classroom but insists that "spending more hours in front of a teacher for some means that they actually may recall less information."
Boston High teachers emphasize that their students, many coming from broken homes and with long records as school dropouts, often find their first taste of success in their jobs -- and value this taste highly.
As part of their school day, Boston High School teachers visit students at their jobs and discuss each student's performance with his or her employer.
"My students want to know how they are doing on their jobs; they're excited, they're amazed that someone's really taking a personal interest in them," English teacher Kathy Centorino explains.
Gerry Higgins, a bilingual teacher, agrees that education is not forgotten in Boston High's work-study process. Showing off two of his students who were busy sorting and copying policies at the Prudential Insurance Company, he explained how quickly relevancy and the work ethic take over.
"Percentages and decimals become a real part of their lives," he said, "when they see their paychecks."
Kathy Centorino has a special regret. When she transferred to Boston High this past September she brought along two students who were dropping out of the school where she taught before. Seeing how successful these two students have become both at Boston High and in their jobs, this enthusiastic young teacher laments:
"Think of all the other kids I could have saved from dropping out of school."