“That was the governor!” the student said to her classmates, doing a double-take as Gov. Deval Patrick made his way through the between-periods crowd in the halls of English High School.
Patrick toured the school on April 8 for several reasons—including scouting out the gym where, in a nod to Jamaica Plain’s political clout, he chose to hold his official re-election campaign kick-off rally on April 10.
But that student’s reaction illustrates Patrick’s favorite reason for the tour: showing kids at an often-criticized public school that they matter to the state’s top policy-maker.
“I love these kids,” Patrick told the Gazette while strolling down the hallway, after smiling warmly and nodding when asked if he ever wanted to be a teacher. “When I was their age, there were some great teachers, great adults, who paid attention to me and made all the difference in the world.”
Patrick—whose official biography describes his youth in “poor and sometimes violent Chicago schools”—said English High’s kids deserve the same attention and to “feel that way about themselves.”
On his two-hour tour of the 144 McBride St. school, Patrick saw a lot of impressive work going on at English High, from the laser experiments of physics students to a class on battlefield journalism in World War I.
Yet Patrick’s own administration has repeatedly labeled the school as academically “underperforming.” And with some regularity, it is the scene of sometimes shocking crimes—a few days after the governor’s visit, an English High freshman was charged with an after-school shooting that had taken place a couple of weeks earlier.
“I think the two realities exist side-by-side. The question is, how do you connect them?” Patrick told the Gazette.
He said he was aware he was being led by a group of honor society students and shown some Advanced Placement classes, and that that isn’t the whole story.
“The question remains, how do we reach the kids we’re not reaching? And that’s our responsibility,” not just an abstract question, Patrick said. He described the answer as partly an attitude: How influential adults “think and talk about—and, with all due respect, how we write about—the school.”
One of the honor students accompanying Patrick made a similar point to the Gazette, which was the only outside media invited to the tour. She expressed disappointment that citywide media weren’t there, especially because their coverage is “always negative things about our school.”
But English High’s own media had the scene covered. Patrick was trailed by a student camera crew for the entire visit, and was interviewed by reporters from the school newspaper.
“Your future is very bright. It’s in your control,” Patrick said in those interviews, emphasizing that students should set high personal standards for themselves. Speaking of significant obstacles to success in life, Patrick said, “I had them. I still have them,” but that success is about moving forward confidently.
Patrick brought along a few of those influential adults he spoke about. His entourage included Boston Public Schools Superintendent Carol Johnson; state Rep. Liz Malia; City Councilors Felix Arroyo and John Tobin; and Karen Payne, president of the Boston NAACP and a candidate for the local Sixth Suffolk District state House seat.
“He certainly is a governor who understands that in one generation, you can change the entire future of a family and a community,” Johnson told the Gazette about Patrick. His personal trajectory went from Chicago’s infamous Robert Taylor Homes housing projects to the halls of Harvard as the first member of his family to attend college.
Patrick clearly enjoyed hanging out with students and showed an unusual knack for connecting with them. In an English Language Learner class, he tried out his “un poquito” amount of Spanish and helped out a student team playing a history game, fist-bumping his teammates when he provided a correct answer.
In an English course, he spent about 20 minutes chatting with students, sitting closely with them away from other officials. He was particularly interested in how they were learning to drop “street talk” in written and spoken English. He had to learn to do the same, he said, recalling the pressure to talk slang outside of school.
“It’s like I had to learn two different languages,” Patrick told the students.
“Oh, my God! We say that all the time!” one of the students responded eagerly.
Patrick also showed an intellectual curiosity in just about every class he poked his head into. The World War I lesson got him musing about how that war came on the cusp of dramatic changes in battle methods. He briefly took over the physics course to ask about various types of electromagnetic energy.
Anything that engaged students seemed to enthrall Patrick, who readily stopped to pose for photos with camera-phone-wielding students. In the school cafeteria, he met with a student artist team, led by Heidi Schork of the Boston Youth Fund Mural Crew, that is painting giant student portraits on the walls in a style derived from the students’ own clothing fashions. Patrick told Schork that the artwork is “wonderful. You captured the variety of the kids.”
Patrick’s chats also brought out some of the challenges that English High students face. There were kids who speak English as a second, or even third, language. There were kids who have to work a job as well as go to school.
The governor was joined throughout the tour by new English High Headmaster Sito Narcisse, who has been credited with bringing a new energy to the school.
“It’s good for [Patrick] to come see we’re promoting a culture of excellence…and high expectations,” Johnson said. “I think we’ve made some significant changes at English High over the last year with Dr. Narcisse.”
While the tour was a chance for the school to show itself off to powerful officials, it also led some of those grown-ups to have flashbacks to their own school experiences.
Asked by the Gazette about his own best and worst subjects in school, Patrick said the best is easy—his major, English.
As for his worst subject, Patrick said, “I’m just glad I didn’t get called on [today] in any of the science classes.”