Boston's 'Southie' sheds its reputation as racial battlefield

''It's the principal's duty to set the tone, the climate, of a school. There is no rule that says adolescents can't act right, even if they live in poverty and racial tension. Our staff stresses teaching and learning and a climate of peace.''

Indeed, conditions have changed significantly at South Boston High since the arrival of Principal Jerome C. Winegar in 1976. Armed security forces no longer patrol the halls and grounds of the school - once the focal point of violent protest against court-ordered desegregation in the United States. Metal detectors have been dismantled. Angry parents no longer scream and march outside the building.

On the contrary, as Boston nears its 10th year of mandatory school desegregation, ''Southie,'' as it's known, is emerging as an example of peaceful mixing - 42 percent black, 30 percent white, 14 percent Hispanic, and 13 percent Asian. Attendance has risen from 53 percent in 1977-78 to 74 percent in 1982-83. Of its 130 June graduates, 37 are going to college, including 13 with large scholarships.

''The turnabout at Southie is good for the entire Boston school system,'' says Mr. Winegar, the school's tall, athletic headmaster.

Southie has not yet overcome all obstacles, he adds. ''We need another 10-15 years to know whether we are creating positive change. . . .

''Physically our school is in terrible shape,'' he says of the 84-year-old building on a hill overlooking downtown Boston. ''But mentally our students are achieving.''

And Southie is winning recognition for that achievement. The school has been awarded grants of $20,000 and $1,000 by the City High School Recognition Program of the Ford Foundation.

''We seek achievers in the world of losers,'' says Edward Meade, chief program officer of the Ford Foundation, referring to the awards. ''We have found 202 winners in 56 cities in two years. South Boston High is the only winner from Boston.''

Mr. Meade says the goal of the project is to recognize ''general high schools'' (not specialized or magnet schools) in the nation's cities that are doing better today than they have in the past 10 years. The schools must have at least 30 percent enrollment from low-income families.

Winning those grants was no small feat for Southie - located in a white community with two public housing projects at its doorsteps. And the school has a student population that includes bused black students from equally blighted communities and Hispanic and Cambodian refugees.

When Winegar was brought in from Minneapolis to Southie in 1976, the South Boston community openly defied compliance with US District Judge W. Arthur Garrity's 1974 decree to desegregate Boston's public schools. There were calls for a boycott of ''beloved Southie.'' An earlier two-week boycott had stretched into the full 1974-75 school year.

Few white students dared report to Southie in those days. Judge Garrity placed the school in receivership in April 1976. This set the stage for Winegar, a Missouri native whose first encounter with desegregation came in 1959 when he taught at East High School in Kansas City, Mo.

''I came to South Boston with set goals in mind,'' Winegar says at his home next door to a black family in the Hyde Park community. ''Educate kids on what it means to be American citizens, how to enjoy their rights as citizens. Reorganize the curriculum; make classes relevant to the student's future. Change the school's administration. Involve the community on social issues.''

Black parents were clamoring for Southie to be closed, Winegar says, ''but I sensed that South Boston could be straightened out.'' His formula: Convince the students to quit fighting, to attend classes, to act responsibly. ''Once the kids are straightened out, parents will follow suit.''

Judge Garrity lifted the receivership in 1978. The $20,000 grant is based on changes made at the school since the 1977-78 school year, the second year of receivership. Since that time Southie has faced only one major racial flareup, during the 1980-81 school year. The school does not appeal to high achievers, however.

The $20,000 will be used to recruit better students and to extend Southie's reading enrichment program next fall to the middle schools (Grades 6-8) that feed into it, says Winegar. Called Project Extend, this program has brought community services in health, family counseling, and other areas to South Boston High during the past two years. Under the program, Southie students will tutor middle-school students, and try to ''sell'' them on Southie.

''We don't get the cream of our feeder schools' eighth graders,'' says Anita Jamieson, project supervisor and program and staff development director at Southie. ''Our eighth-grade pool ranks in the 44th percentile (citywide), but the students we get as entering freshmen languish in the 28.5 percentile. Other high schools are skimming our top feeder-school students.''

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