Students upset over what they say is their lack of input in the design for English High School (EHS) to become a state pilot school next fall planned to present the results of a survey of classmates to the design team Monday detailing their suggestions and concerns. The meeting was cancelled at the last minute.
The survey, a project by EHS’s social activism class, followed an April 3 demonstration when some students walked out to protest the school’s new “pilot” format, especially plans for a longer academic day and cutting enrollment.
“Students are angry,” said Jeff McDuffie, one of three seniors in Gabriell Paye’s class, all from JP, who talked to the Gazette, off-campus, May 31. “Once we found out English was going to be a pilot school, we started talking about it, but [officials] did not tell us any details until near the end of the school year. And we’ve had no real input about the plan.”
McDuffie admitted some seniors are afraid that if they complain they may not be allowed to graduate.
Classmate Ashley Slamin added that many underclass students are also “scared to speak up.”
“Right now there’s not much school spirit,” she said. “When other members of my family went here it was different. I don’t know if people [outside the school] understand how serious things are at English.”
Senior Jessica Santana called the longer school day “an opportunity for some students, but for those who need to work after school it will be very hard. In my personal experience, a lot of kids are saying they don’t want to come back.”
The ambitious project surveyed about 220 of the 1,200 students in seven categories, including academic programs, student-teacher relations, building maintenance, cultural issues and job-hunting skills.
The students tabulated the results and wrote a report that summarized their findings and compared them to the “Design Team’s Report,” the “Teacher’s Writing Group’s findings,” and “what is already available…based on the EHS website and what we know about the school.”
McDuffie said the the survey showed the most important things on the students’ minds, the survey showed, were having their voices heard; availability of more textbooks to take home and more working computers, paper and other supplies; and the palpable fear of losing the school’s best teachers.
Other topics of concern included keeping sports programs, extending library hours, increasing scholarship and financial aid assistance, having a student council that helps makes school decisions and developing better relationships between students and faculty and among students of different ethnic backgrounds.
“The students did a lot of work on this class project,” said Paye, one of teachers not coming back next year.
“It’s sad the school has been taken by the state, and the students just want to have some input to the new plan. But the No Child Left Behind policies seem to treat them like they have no say, like they’re stupid. Well, they’re not. And I’m very proud of them,” she said.
Last April the Massachusetts Board of Education approved a proposal by EHS administrators, staff, parents and others, including Boston University staff, to make the nation’s oldest public high school a Commonwealth Pilot School under the control of the state. The decision came in response to low MCAS test scores.
“We had no choice,” said EHS Family and Community Outreach Coordinator Sandra McIntosh, who is also a member of the design team. “It was either do this, or close.”
She said, during an interview at the school, “Nobody, faculty or students, really had any say in the [state mandated] framework of the plan,” which promises more autonomy for the on-site administration in running the school, while emphasizing preparing students for college.
But she also maintained that many of the students’ suggestions, like longer library hours, financial assistance for college and help finding jobs, are, or have been, offered without much response in the past. “They say they want opportunity, but they don’t use it,” she said.
The long-time educator said later she fears, “We’re not preparing [students] for the real world.”
McIntosh did confirm, “The design team is still putting details [of the plan] together… and there is still an opportunity for kids to give input.”
“I think the survey is excellent,” said EHS Headmaster Jose Duarte, who maintained he encouraged the students’ project from the beginning. “I’m happy to work with them on it. We need input from all parties.”
But the seniors interviewed had a different recollection. “At first Mr. Duarte didn’t want [the survey],” said McDuffie. “Then he said okay after we kept pressuring him.”
Duarte went on to say two other student groups have also submitted ideas to him—a focus group organized by the administration and students from a computer class. He said many suggestions mirrored the survey, but he did not have details at hand.
The students said they are skeptical their concerns will be taken seriously, but, although they graduate soon, all three said they’re still committed to follow up on the design team’s final decision.
“We will stay on top of this. I want the next generation to have better opportunities than we’ve had,” said Santana, who added that she’s “learned I have more of a voice and more power than I thought.”
“I’d like to say how great a lot of teachers are. They’re not acknowledged as much as they should be. It’s sad a lot of them are leaving this year. Ms. Paye is wonderful. Mr. Duarte, too,” said Slamin, who lost both of her parents two years ago and credited the headmaster for helping her stay in school.
“This is not an attack on anybody. I got a lot of support from students and faculty here, and I thank the school. But they keep telling us we’re the future… and we want to be able to come back here some day and say we’re the ones that made a difference at English High School.”