When a school goes, so does the community around it

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ANDERSON GUERRO has one question for Mayor Marty Walsh and Laura Perille, his interim Boston Public Schools superintendent: “How would it feel if we took your house and family away?”

That “house” is McCormack Middle School, now proposed for closure and extensive renovations after the 2019-20 academic year. For students like Guerro, a 13-year-old eighth-grader, their Dorchester school is more than its hallways, walls, and whiteboards. It’s a close-knit community that’s been a sanctuary from the turbulence of their young lives.

This is another phase in Walsh’s “BuildBPS,” a $1 billion, 10-year construction plan to reconfigure and update its 125 schools. Meanwhile, McCormack students say they are learning harsh lessons about race, and how gentrification makes them feel unwelcome in their own neighborhoods.

“It’s like we’re not important, and the school is nothing,” said Alexa Nova, 13, an eighth-grader at McCormack. “But this school has changed a lot of people’s lives.”

Also marked for closure are West Roxbury Academy and Urban Science Academy. At all three schools, students of color are in the majority.

No one is surprised that McCormack is closing. BuildBPS is phasing out the city’s middle schools, which serve grades 6 to 8. Enrollment at McCormick has also been sinking for more than a decade, from about 800 in 2003 to around 400 now. (Elementary schools will be reconfigured to accommodate grades K-6.)

Everyone understands the logic, yet here’s what gets the tears flowing: McCormack’s community, as fiercely sustaining and protective of each other as kin, may not remain intact.

Students — but not necessarily teachers or staff — will be reassigned to Excel Academy, an underperforming South Boston high school already taken over by the state. It will be expanded to accommodate grades 7 to 12.

McCormack is a family. And you don’t divide a family.

According to Perille’s letter, McCormack, too, will eventually expand to grades 7 to 12. Renovations will “significantly improve learning environments for students.”

“Closing a school is never an easy decision, and this situation is no different,” Perille told me Thursday. “We also recognize that the McCormack school is providing a quality education for many of our students, and is a strong resource particularly for students with special needs and English learners.”

Perille says keeping the school community intact is “not yet off the table.” She also reiterated that the renovated McCormack will continue to serve mostly students of color.

Many in the McCormack community remain skeptical.

“So they’re going to make the school nice, but not for us,” said Neema Avashia, a McCormack social studies teacher for 15 years. “Most of my kids live in Dorchester and South Boston, and they feel that way every time they walk out of the house. This is gentrification hitting school — you’re going to make this nice, but it’s also not for us. [It’s as if] we don’t deserve it. We don’t get to stay together, and someone else will get it.”

Last semester, I visisted Avashia’s civics class to talk to students about racial justice. Her classroom was filled with student projects about violence, racial and economic inequity, and immigration. These weren’t abstract subjects for her students.

A majority of Boston’s murders this month have occurred in communites where these children live. Homelessness is increasingly a factor, with some students living in shelters. McCormack has a closet with clothes, toothbrushes and toothpaste, and deodorant. Students from Central America, and other countries rife with unrest, receive trauma counseling at the school.

“Someone needs to meet those needs. I’m not saying we’re perfect or have it all figured out, but we’re trying,” Avashia said. “To have school as a place where kids know they can have their needs met, and then to take that way, without any thought to how you’re going to meet those needs, feels like its own kind of violence.”

Now with their community in peril, the kids no longer feel like they can sit on the sidelines. They’re attending hours-long school committee meetings to voice displeasure with plans that will affect not just their futures but those of their siblings.

“My younger sister is a bright child, and I want her to have the option of which high school she goes to,” said eighth-grader Jeremiah Rivera, 14. “For this school to close and for her to be put in Excel, she doesn’t get the option I want her to have.”

Rivera, who enrolled at McCormack last year, called its closure, “an insult to the students, race-wise. Just because we’re mostly from a certain races, this school is automatically beaten down. Opportunities are being closed, and I think [Walsh] is focusing on us because of race. He has to put himself in our position to see what we’re losing.”

What they’re losing is a camaraderie forged from hardship, and relationships that have helped them through tough times. Guerro compared being separated from his favorite teacher to “taking a father from a baby.” Eighth-grader Leslee Benoit, 14, recalled when her uncle died from a drug overdose, she did not feel isolated because other students understood her pain. “We’re all there for each other,” she said.

They’ll continue to lean on each other during the uncertain months ahead. Many of these students will graduate next spring, but say their connection to McCormack won’t end. Like other alumni who have returned since the announcement, they’re committed to attending meetings and bending the ears of officials who, they say, aren’t just shutting down a school, but a vibrant, nurturing community.

“This school isn’t the building; it’s the people inside. They’re my sisters and brothers and I would do anything for them,” said Jainiyah Santos, 13, an eighth-grader. “I’m heartbroken, but I’m not going down without a fight.”

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