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Hanging Tight on Thomson's Island

Students Learn In the Open Air

By Jonathan D. Ratner

The prognosis for South Boston High School this fall is guarded. Three years after the start of court-ordered busing to integrate Boston's public schools, there are some signs that the racial tensions that turned Southie High into an armed camp may be beginning to abate. The fights are far fewer and disciplinary suspensions are way down over last year. At the same time, state troopers still patrol the hallways of Southie High. Still, observers estimate that as many as one-third of the enrolled students are absent from the school each day. The mood of Southie High administrators, then, might well be termed one of cautious optimism.

Analysts may provide a variety of airy sociological explanations for the apparent improvement at Southie High. One major cause, however, is quite concrete. Walk down to Kelly's Landing in Southie, turn to the southeast and take out a good pair of binoculars--you can see signs of the infinitely promising educational enterprise unfolding a mile out in Boston Harbor. Every school day for seven weeks this fall, a specially recruited group of 30 ninth- and tenth-graders from Southie High--both male and female, black and white--will travelout to Thomson's Island to participate in an innovative environmental education program.

The educators who operate the private and state-funded Thomson Education Center set a wide range of high-minded goals for the students who participate in the program, ranging from the development of scientific skills to cultural awareness. Fundamentally, the two-and-a half-year-old program attempts to help students from a divisive, conflict-oriented school environment learn to function as a tight-knit group and have confidence in themselves and in each other. And that is a goal that most observers believe the Thomson's Island students are achieving. As Jerome Winegar, federal court-appointed headmaster of South Boston High School, says, "There's no question that the kids who go out there learn to get along with each other."

The day starts before dawn for the students, participating in the center's Harbor Environmental Program. By bus, subway and on foot, they arrive at Long Wharf in downtown Boston by 8:15 a.m., in time for the 20-minute ferry ride to the island. Aboard the boat some sit quietly smoking cigarettes and talking among themselves, others lean out over the railing, staring out at the docks, ships and shorefront of Boston Harbor. Below deck on the 50-foot launch, some of the students drink coffee and chat with their teachers from the island school.

The contrasts with the mainland school are marked. At Southie High, the students are quick to report, athletic activity begins and ends with football. Yet out on Thomson's Island, every morning the group devotes an hour to "initiative games" that take place in the open air. These specially designed athletic activities--with names like "The Regain" and "The High Wire Tension Traverse"--are designed to help the group learn to solve problems together, to aid in building a cohesive sense of trust among the students.

On a recent Thursday morning, for instance, Thomson teacher Greg Watson asked his group of 15 students to try to complete "the suspended log obstacle test." Within 20 minutes the group would have to get every member up and over a log suspended nine feet above the ground between two trees--with the proviso that once a student was over the obstacle, he could not help the rest of his classmates. Working as a team the group succeeded with minutes to spare.

On some days, the students will directly investigate the unique environment of the 160-acre island, a setting that includes salt marshes, forests, meadows, coves, orchards, beaches and clay cliffs. After some initial classroom instruction from the Thomson teachers, the group will go out to study the environment together, in projects ranging from soil surveys and vegetation transects, to wildlife observation.

A work project designed to add to the resources of the Thomson center provides another focus for the students' group work. The current group of 30 is terracing a site, selected by both students and instructors, in an attempt to prevent soil erosion. The hillside site they chose is extremely steep, and the students must rely heavily on each other to work safely and effectively. The black and white students, who tote humus and wood girders together, who anchor one another as they climb up the hillside, certainly provide a sharp contrast with the students who walk the halls of Southie High in racially divided packs.

The center's administrators integrate all these activities with efforts to develop basic academic skills. The environmental investigations, for instance, often require the use of mathematical skills. Students at the end of each afternoon write a review of their day's activity in their journals. The various historic sites on the island--first settled in 1627, the island served as a British encampment during the Revolutionary War--provide resources for social investigations. In homework assignments, Thomson staffers ask students to apply what they have learned on the island to investigations of their own mainland communities.

The unique school day that the Thomson Education Center provides these inner-city kids represents a clear break with the educational past of this historic island. One of the first areas settled in New England, Thomson's Island served as the site of a farm and trade school from the early 1800s until the 1950s. From 1955 to 1974, affluent kids attended Thomson Academy, a private boarding school on the island. Then during the summer of 1974, faced with financial difficulties and with the start of the busing program only a few months away, the academy's board of trustees decided to close the school calling in a group of educational consultants, they asked how the academy might retool itself to provide an educational consultants, they asked how the academy might retool itself to provide an educational resource for inner city students.

That resource, evolving over the past three years, has now brought more than 175 Southie High students out to Thomson's Island for the seven-week Harbor Environmental Program, as well as attracting more than a thousand other Boston public school students for day-and week-long environmental education visits.

While the merits of the environmental program might seem indisputable on the surface, segments of the South Boston community appear vehemently opposed to the work of the Thomson Education Center. One example: an item from last week's edition of the South Boston Tribune states, "Keep your eyes open for new brainwashing attempts from the high school. Winegar and his imported cronies, along with some local traitors, are making plans now. One of the places to be used is Thomson's Island." Headmaster Winegar says some South Boston residents see the Thomson Island program as a form of brainwashing "because their kids go out there and they don't fight." Winegar maintains, however, that much of South Boston's opposition to the center is sheer bluster. "On the surface, the party line is 'we hate the place'" he says, "but their kids are always there."

But if the adult community of South Boston is divided over the Thomson program, the students who participate in it are not. Universally, they say they like the Harbor Environmental Program. And universally, they say they dislike Southie High.

Even as the school attempts the long climb back to educational and social health, the reputation of Southie High seems to precede it for these students, most of whom are ninth-graders. "There's pressure at the high school from all the cops, so no one wants to get along," Vernon McCloud, 16 years old, says.

"Out here on Thomson's Island, everybody can work together. You don't have to worry about getting into fights, or what somebody else called you. You can't avoid trouble at Southie," Jeffrey Hardy, a ninth-grader who has only spent four weeks in South Boston High, adds.

Debbie Moment, a 15-year-old, agrees: "Here, teachers treat you like a friend, always real polite and nice. Teachers at Southie don't care how they talk to you. I always feel real tense at Southie. I can't think straight there."

Thomson's Island does seem to teach the skeptics a good deal about human nature and about what kids accustomed to a highly polarized setting beset by racial strife can accomplish, in a better environment. But for all the votes of approval from students, it is easy to forget that the program is a short-lived one. After seven weeks on the island many students begin to ask questions, to take academics more seriously, to think more carefully about their futures. But then each group returns to Southie High, back to the troopers and the fights. Most of these 14-and 15-year-olds say they do not look forward to returning to Southie High. Some even speak confidently about remaining out on the island for the whole year. But Alan November, coordinator of the program and part-time student at the Graduate School of Education, says he tells the students that this option is not open to them.

"We've become resigned to the fact that the program is a one-shot deal for many of these kids," November says. Without the financial resources to maintain a formal follow-up program, the Thomson staff members must rely on casual contact with their former students. The chances are limited to the times when teachers come into South Boston High to recruit students for a new program, or when a student calls an old Thomson instructor for advice.

But the program is not easily dismissed. "South Boston High School's administrators have decided the program is worth it enough even if it has few long-range effects. They want these kids to feel good about themselves, for once," November says. "It would be criminal not to give these students the chance to participate in the program."

In fact, bright options are open to some of the Thomson Islanders who do not look forward to returning to the mainstream of Southie High. During the spring of 1975, a group of South Boston High School teachers visited Thomson's Island and, apparently inspired by what they saw, returned to Southie to form an alternative "school-within-a-school" for select students. In the two years since, several other spin-off alternative programs have begun at Southie High. November says about half the Thomson Islanders apply for an alternative program when they leave the island, of that number, about 80 per cent are admitted. Hopes for a more comprehensive follow-up program hinge on current efforts to attract the long-term federal funding needed to finance such a plan, in addition to the program's state and private funding.

For now, the link between South Boston High School and this small island, only a mile out in the harbor, appears to be a strong one. The administrators believe they can help build self-confident yet trusting individuals with a new-found respect for educational pursuits; South Boston High administrators view the program as a means of providing the school community with a flow of more tolerant, understanding students.

"Everyday, what we're about here is making these kids feel good about themselves. If we don't do that, we're not doing our jobs," November says. "The Center has a very strong commitment to respond to the needs of Boston's inner city communities. If those needs change, the island will change."

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