Charlestown High’s Change Starts from the Top

By George K. Regan Jr.

In 1974, as Mayor Kevin White’s Press Secretary, I became the spokesperson for bussing in Boston. I saw first-hand how bussing tore the fabric of the city apart. Busses carrying children were pelted with rocks, students were dropping out of school at alarming rates, and violence became so widespread, going to school became less about education and more about simple survival.

Nowhere was this unrest felt more than at Charlestown High School. An institution for nearly 130 years at the time of the bussing crisis, the school became a focal point of the city’s anger and turmoil. Evendecades later, Charlestown High was still challenged by violence and disorder.

But today, I’m glad to say that under the leadership of Principal William Thomas, Charlestown High has made great strides. Through Principal Partners, a program supported by Bank of America which brings Boston’s business leaders into local schools, I had the opportunity to visit Charlestown High as guest principal for a day. I saw a school that had turned things around, proving to me that the right leadership can put any organization on the right path, regardless of its past.

When Thomas started at Charlestown High nine years ago, he encountered a sense of unease which sometimes erupted into violence. Lunchtime was particularly volatile, as fighting required every available staff member to oversee lunch to keep things under control. But that unease has turned into a feeling of hope, as teachers and students work together to give them a better chance of success.

Thomas credited his staff to the school’s newfound optimism. “The teachers showed just how much they really care about the students—all of them,” he said. The students, he said, rose up to meet these new expectations, to be worthy of this commitment.

Another factor in Charlestown High’s transformation is the emphasis on new programs and innovations to engage students and get them thinking of the future. The first is the school’s Diploma Plus program, where teachers are given the flexibility to adjust to the needs of students. “Everyone doesn’t learn the same way,” Thomas said. “We have to think outside the box for solutions.”

The school’s arts program has expanded greatly under Thomas’ tenure. For more than 20 years, Charleston High’s art offerings were anemic, offering only one arts teacher for the entire school. Now, under Thomas, the arts program has grown to include separate instructors for dance, choir, music, and theater.

But one of the most impressive changes that I noticed at Charlestown was the introduction of the Pathway Program, a partnership with nearby Bunker Hill Community College. This is Charlestown’s second year for the program, where students as young as freshmen can take classes in IT problemsolving and computer programming for actual college credits. It’s a great head start for students; by the time they graduate, they can have up to 30 college credits under their belts. Thomas said the program has grown to give similar offerings in business and healthcare “The goal is to train students for fields where there is the most opportunity,” he said.

The school still has many challenges. Many of the school’s 900 students are economically disadvantaged, budgets make it difficult to offer the necessary remedial and advanced classes, and many students wrestle with inner-city issues such as violence, abuse, and, in some cases, homelessness. But I feel confident that with Thomas at the helm, Charlestown High is headed in the right direction.

Are there still fights in the cafeteria? Sometimes. But Thomas said the reasons—and the severity of these fights—have changed radically. Instead of gang-related disputes, today’s issues stem from arguments over boyfriends and other typical teenage fare. Staffing at the cafeteria has changed from “all hands on deck” to two to three teachers during lunchtime, what you would expect in any school in the state. Thomas knows that if he can retain order in the cafeteria, it’s a good sign for a well-run classroom.

“If you have an orderly cafeteria, you are going to have an orderly classroom,” he said.

It’s very easy to be pessimistic about government (especially this year), but Principal Thomas has given me—and his students—expectations of better days.

George K. Regan Jr. is President and Chairman of Regan Communications

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