A school of her own, with the feel of a family

Like Boston's public high schools, Meg Campbell is a fixer-upper. As principal of a successful three-year-old charter school in Boston's Codman Square, she credits her five siblings with turning their shy sister into the activist and educator she is today.

"Basically, I'm an introvert. I'm a poet. My sisters had to kidnap me to shave my legs," says the self-described fashion disaster. "They had a lot of work to do on me. They still do."

But growing up in southern California, she says, the family of eight was a clan, a tribe, "a team from Day 1." In its embrace, Ms. Campbell and her siblings could find their own ways among people who would always love and challenge them.

"Where else but in a family can you have relationships with people you know so well, who know you so well, who you've always got on your back?" she asks. "Maybe nowhere but in a school like this."

"This" is Codman Academy Charter School, three grades and 80 students strong, expecting to reach 110 next year when its first class hits senior year. Modeled after the pushy, loyal Campbell clan, it's an environment students describe in familial terms. "There's Meg, she's Grandma. Ain [Grooms, dean of enrichment] is Mom. [Junior humanities teacher] Thabiti [Brown] is Dad," explains Jonalis Carrasquillo, a member of the school's founding class. "And that's not counting the aunts."

Operating out of a wing of the state-of-the-art Codman Square Health Center, an anchor in the Dorchester neighborhood where Campbell has lived for 20 years, Codman emphasizes students' physical and emotional health alongside a rigorous college-preparatory curriculum.

"We're coming off of years of cuts in [physical education] in urban public schools," says Campbell. "But everything we know says there's a strong connection between academic achievement and physical and mental health."

Codman's students - all of whom are chosen by lottery - are overwhelmingly poor and black; a number are recently homeless. Fifteen percent of last year's entering freshmen needed to get glasses so they could read the blackboard, and many were dealing with emotional or home situations for which they - and sometimes family members - needed counseling. The health center provides these services free of charge.

Now - with guidance from Campbell, seven teachers, three administrators, and an athletic director - the students are wrestling with Shakespeare and James Joyce. Ninth and 10th graders study and perform plays with Boston's acclaimed Huntington Theatre Company; juniors study physics at nearby Simmons College.

"Some of my friends [at other high schools] say they're not going to college, and I'm like, 'What are y'all schools doing, then?' " says sophomore Marlon Thompson, who has his sights set on Princeton.

Campbell's unorthodox approach has already fostered an uncommonly friendly, poised, and resourceful community of young people. "If you see something you want to change, you just write Meg a proposal and you'll discuss it and figure out a compromise," says Jonalis, who has started a drama club, organized an annual international fair, and made the school's uniforms more colorful. "It's fair. The students have as much say-so as the teachers here, and there's a responsibility that comes with that."

Codman has also begun to see some numerical success: Last year, all 25 sophomores passed the language-arts portion of the state's high-stakes MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) test on their first try. (Two blocks away, at the 930-student Dorchester High, the passing rate was 53 percent.) The boys' basketball team is second in its division; the girls' team is fourth.

"There's so much you can do with kids this age if you take them seriously," says Campbell.

It all started with a fight over beer and cigarettes. Campbell and Bill Walczak, a fellow Dorchester resident and founder and director of the 25-year-old health center, first got to know each other working on a 1985 campaign to fight billboards advertising tobacco and alcohol near neighborhood schools. The campaign proved successful, and the two became friends.

In 2000, when Campbell heard Mr. Walczak was looking to expand the health center's youth programs, the activist duo had found a new cause.

"For me," Campbell says, "education is about social justice and addressing injustice. It's not the only way, but these are the buckets I'd like to carry."

In some ways, Campbell has been planning Codman Academy her whole life. As a kid, she says, she was always playing school. As a high schooler, she and fellow students protested the Vietnam War while school administrators debated whether to introduce chocolate milk in the cafeteria. She remembers telling her principal, "I just don't think you're listening to me."

In graduate school, Campbell was drawn to early childhood education, and was struck by its focus on students' families as the keystones of and chief advocates for their education - a principle central to her design of Codman. When her daughters reached school age, she became "a pain-in-the-neck parent" lobbying for change in their schools.

Her daughters, too, helped shape Codman Academy. The older, now a financial analyst and girls' track and cross-country coach, showed her nonathlete mom the importance of team sports for high school girls; the younger daughter, an actress, inspired the Huntington Theatre partnership.

As they grew, Campbell went to work as a teacher in the Boston and Chelsea public schools. It wasn't until her 40s, though, that she says she could personally empathize with students for whom school didn't come easily. Academics had never been hard for her - until a rock-climbing course with the Outward Bound wilderness organization pushed the envelope.

She'd never understood what it felt like to be bad at something that others found simple. For her, the course was a struggle. But with the help of a supportive team, she made it to the top of a 40-foot cliff overhanging the Rio Grande. "After that, it was like, 'send me to the moon,' " she says. Over the next few years, the veteran teacher helped found four schools through Expeditionary Learning, an outgrowth of Outward Bound.

"So I'd been the midwife, and I'd enjoyed that," she says. "But I wanted my own child." As Codman's founding class prepares to enter its senior year, this once-shy kid has finally gotten her wish.

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