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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Collaborators in Dorchester High Partnership Write the Book on Trust in Student and School Culture

This story originally ran in the February 2004 issue of the University Reporter.

Last fall, an era ended in Boston Public School history, when Dorchester High morphed into three brand-new schools: the Academy of Public Service, the Economics and Business Academy, and Tech Boston Academy, all housed within the same imposing structure near Codman Square. The new entity is called “The Dorchester Education Complex.” Despite these changes, UMass Boston continues its partnership with the institution on Peacevale Road.

“UMass Boston has been involved with Dorchester High for years, going all the way back to Joan Becker and Charlie Desmond…all the way back to Boston State,” says Professor Lisa Gonsalves of the Graduate College of Education. Sitting next to her in the school’s first-floor library and media center, Economics and Business Academy headmaster Jack Leonard agrees, calling the partnership both “long-standing” and “many-faceted.” He lists collaborative programs including Upward Bound, Urban Scholars, Admission Guaranteed, GEAR-UP, and Dual Enrollment, and also the involvement of teaching interns, visiting faculty researchers, and faculty teaching courses. The two are now collaborating on a book that will examine the history of the school and point to lessons that can be learned and applied in urban schools everywhere.

“We’ve both done a lot of research relating to the school,” says Leonard, who recently compiled a history of 50 years (1950-2000) at Dorchester High. The broader aim of his research, he says, is to discern why some high schools work and others do not. Leonard cites a study done in Chicago, where the only common denominator found among successfully reformed urban schools had to do with a “high sense of trust.”

“We don’t talk about that. It’s kind of hard to define, but I think we all know what it feels like,” says Leonard. “It’s interesting to me to look back through the history of events here in Boston and think about what we have done to build trust or to betray trust. How much of that is even a part of our vocabulary?” Although Gonsalves is known for her system-wide work relating to the MCAS test, she also does research in the area of student and school culture, both of which are relevant to this notion of “hard-to-describe” factors such as trust.

Just before the closure of Dorchester High School, she produced an assessment of the student culture there. “Basically it wasn’t a cohesive student culture. We’re trying to uncover how the school got to that point.” She adds, “Even though the book deals with history, it’s really about reform.”

One helpful aspect of reform in Dorchester has been the shrinking of the community of students-from a sea of 900 students to more manageable 300-student subschools, each with its own identity and physical space. And, says Gonsalves, the UMass Boston partnership, in its many facets, will continue: “We are fully committed to the partnership.”