Roxbury Prep eyes Newmarket site for new high school campus

School won’t be ready for at least two years, and Roxbury Prep leaders say that’s enough time to stabilize the otherwise desolate neighborhood. Besides, they say, Roxbury Prep high school students deserve to finally be together, rather than split between two campuses, in Hyde Park and Roxbury. Students will finally have access to top-notch science labs and sports and performance facilities close to public transportation. And in Boston’s overheated real estate market, finding a location that could meet the complex demands of a school was a challenge.

The school “can unify in a space where businesses and elected officials can see them, get to know them,” said school co-founder Shradha Patel. “They will be able to be together and really get the education they deserve. I think that’s the most special thing.

But many parents and observers say the site originally planned for the unified high school, on Belgrade Avenue in Roslindale, near the center of West Roxbury, was perfect, and Boston’s infamous racialized neighborhood policy may have forced mostly black, Latino, low-income Prep students into a more dangerous setting for a school.

“I would be heartbroken if they felt like they had to settle for plan B because of racial animosity,” said Boston City Councilman Ricardo Arroyo, who represents Roslindale and is beaten so that the school settles in the district, which does not have a high standard. school. “Everyone should feel upset if that’s what happened.”

Some parents are, in fact, deeply upset, especially Kimberly Thomas. Her 16-year-old son attends the Hyde Park campus of Roxbury Prep and she hoped to send her four young children there. Thomas, who is black, said she would reconsider whether the school went ahead with its plans to build in the Newmarket area.

“This is no place for a school,” she said.

Many opponents of the project oppose the accusation that racism motivated their disapproval of the Roslindale site. There were a host of other arguments: some said the project would increase traffic, the land was too small for the school, and the commuter rail tracks opened near the school were unsafe.

“It was never about color or being against kids,” said West Roxbury resident Todd Wyner. “I didn’t feel like all aspects of safety had been considered.”

When Roxbury Prep decided in 2017 to build a new high school at the former Clay Auto Center on Belgrade Avenue, the school had built a reputation for strict disciplinary policies and strong academics: all students take at least one advanced placement course, and the school sends virtually all of its graduates at University.

The school, co-founded by former President Barack Obama’s education secretary, John King, was studied by a Winner of the Nobel Prize from MIT for his success in improving academic achievement.

So it came as a surprise to some of its backers when neighbors raised concerns about the school moving to Roslindale.

AT one of the first communities meetings on the proposal, held at the local police station, opponents circulated a petition saying car insurance rates would rise if the school was built on the site, and at least one resident said he feared that the students of the proposed school do not steal his car, according to two West Roxbury residents who attended the crowded meeting and did not want to be identified for fear of reigniting the neighborhood dispute. At another meeting, someone said they “didn’t want to see 700 black kids go through [their] house to go to 7-Eleven,” according to one resident, who also owns a business in town.

After school supporters said racism was driving residents’ complaints, the rhetoric changed. Opponents complained about the traffic the school would bring to a commercial section of West Roxbury where there was already a primary school. Opponents also said the school would not benefit neighborhood children, even though West Roxbury students are eligible to participate in the school’s lottery admissions process.

Flyers and signs reading “Stop 361 Belgrade – Save Our Neighborhood” dotted neighbors’ lawns and windshields, a reference to the site address. “It was talked about everywhere you went,” said the West Roxbury resident and business owner. “Football. Hockey practice. It was a very emotional battle.

The school hired media and political consultants and paid more than $500,000 to license the consultants, and knocked on doors in West Roxbury and Roslindale to address residents’ concerns. He even reduced the project to around 560 students out of more than 800, to appease neighbors and elected officials.

But then neighbors raised new concerns, saying the school would not be big enough to accommodate all of its students.

Mayor Michelle Wu, during his election campaign, said the city should focus on improving long-neglected buildings frequented by Boston public school children. If Roxbury Prep built a new high school, it could drive students away from city-run schools, she told Commonwealth Magazine in 2020. Representatives of Councilwoman Julia Mejia said she also objected to the project because of the school’s rigid approach to student discipline.

Almost a quarter of Roxbury Prep students on college and high school campuses were disciplined for the 2017-2018 school year. In the latest available data, disciplinary rates were around 9 percent for 2019-20, compared to 1% for students at Boston’s three exam schools.

After four years, the Boston Planning & Development Agency had not scheduled a vote on the project and did not explain why. Then, last April, Roxbury Prep dropped out.

“After careful consideration, Roxbury Prep has decided to withdraw from 361 Belgrade Avenue site right now,” the school wrote in an email to supporters. The message thanked those who “took action” against “what were sometimes racist claims about our students and our school”.

The move disappointed Celdra Allen-Harding, a Roslindale resident whose son graduated from Roxbury Prep High School in 2020 and who lobbied for the city to allow the school to be built in Roslindale.

“All the white people were coming out and yelling at us. … And they won,” said Allen-Harding, who is black.

As well as avoiding conflict at West Roxbury, the school had other reasons to look elsewhere. The pandemic had changed the real estate market and new affordable sites were becoming available, school officials wrote.

Now the school plans to build its schoolhouse at 69-71 Proctor St., on a site it plans to purchase from Boston-based Kensington Investment Co.. The school said it reviewed more than 60 locations over the past five years before selecting the site. , and that retrofitting an existing building to meet the school’s building codes was “essentially prohibitively expensive”.

The lot sits across from a playground and large ball diamond, and adjacent to Mason Elementary School in Boston. Further down the street is 1010 Massachusetts Ave., a city office building that houses the Boston Public Health Commission. A few blocks away, across Massachusetts Avenue, is the Newmarket stop on the commuter train.

Allen-Harding is concerned that students may not be able to walk around the school neighborhood safely as they would in Roslindale.

“But if the neighborhood isn’t a problem for them to build the school there, then maybe it’s worth it,” she added.

Concerns about the new location come as no surprise to school co-founder Shradha Patel, who said parents have raised similar concerns about the neighborhoods that house the school’s existing campuses.

Patel lives in Roslindale but visits the Newmarket area twice a week when his son plays baseball and basketball at The BASE Inc., a non-profit organization providing tutoring, sports and college counseling to hundreds of people. children. Patel plans for Prep to team up with The BASE and other local bands.

“It’s an opportunity for our kids to understand what equity, diversity, community partnership means,” she said.

The school plans to call parents individually to discuss concerns and come up with plans to address any safety issues that arise once school opens, Patel said.

So far, the neighborhood has hosted the school.

If approved, the site would fall under District Three, represented by Councilman Frank Baker. Baker, whose district includes parts of Dorchester, South Boston and South End, said the high school could jump-start the city’s efforts to provide more recreational and outdoor activities for young people in the area.

“The more positive activity we can generate there, we hope will displace the negative things that are happening there,” Baker said.

Stephanie Monteiro-Merritt, acting president of BASE, welcomed Roxbury Prep’s plans and said her organization collaborate in the development of the athletic development, academic skills and professional preparation of charter school students.

“I see this as a win-win to support our neighborhood black and brown kids,” Monteiro-Merritt said. “That’s the whole story.”

She acknowledged the drug addiction issues in the surrounding area, but said they hadn’t affected the BASE as much as people might think.

“Student safety is paramount, and anyone who comes to Newmarket would say it’s a booming neighborhood,” Monteiro-Merritt said. “Families arrive, and they are here every day.

Even if the district supports the project, the school still needs city approval. Asked if Wu would support the new proposal, its spokesperson replied, “The administration looks forward to a thorough public review process.”

If approved, the school would not be the first in the area. Orchard Gardens K-8 and Mason Elementary School, both neighborhood schools, have dealt with the problems of the area for years. After Orchard Gardens families and staff complained to the school committee in 2019 that drug addicts were leaving needles on the playground and defecating on school property, the district improved the fencing around the school.

Since then, parents say it’s better, at least on school grounds.

“He still sees syringes on the way to school,” said Yrmaris Matias, a parent of a sixth-grader from Orchard Gardens and co-chair of the school’s parent council, who lives nearby on Massachusetts Avenue. . “But it’s not something you want your child to see. I would not send my son to high school in this area.

Danny McDonald of Globe staff contributed to this report.

Correction: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this report included a misspelling of the name of the Acting BASE President.

Bianca Vázquez Toness can be contacted at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @biancavtoness. Tiana Woodard is a member of the Report for America body that covers black neighborhoods. She can be contacted at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @tianarochon.

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