The first night after the students moved in, their sponsor's cousin died of a heroin overdose. The second night, a security guard trying to break up a block party was stabbed outside of the apartments; he used the students' phone to call an ambulance.
The wail of police sirens seldom subsides at the Academy Homes. Alpha Security guards constantly patrol the buildings, and the walls of the MBTA's orange line--which slices through the project--are almost completely obscured by graffiti. Poor, extended and usually fatherless families occupy the two massive structures which rise out of the haze and debris of Roxbury. Most of the adults are alcoholics or drug addicts. The children--who comprise more than 60 per cent of the residents--run in gangs, calling themselves the Warlocks, the Crazy Homicides or the Wild Bunch. The environment is not conducive to a serene childhood.
This is the world which five Harvard students stepped into last summer. As part of a Phillips Brooks House (PBH) outreach project, they went to the Homes to design a summer academic and social program for inner-city youths. Three months later, they came away somewhat frustrated and somewhat surprised--and better educated.
The program was initiated last spring when Madison Singleton, a University of Michigan student, and Greg Johnson, the graduate secretary of PBH, began reminiscing about a similar project organized by PBH ten years ago. Singleton was one of the children who participated in the original Free School at Columbia Point and Johnson was his counselor. The two won PBH's support to recreate the program and formed the Academy Homes Summer Youth Program of 1980.
Their plan seemed simple: the students would move into the Academy Homes, use Singleton, now a resident of the project, to establish a rapport with the families, and begin a sort of educational-social summer school. But from the start, they encountered problems. A shortage of funds threatened the program. Eventually, Harvard's Office of Government and Community Relations and the Roxbury juvenile, courts added funds to the original PBH grant--enough to support the project.
The students moved into the housing project but again faced obstacles. They encountered difficulties in recruiting because Singleton did not have the rapport with residents that the students expected to find. In part because Singleton attends college, "his family was just not considered the model family," Lester Parrette '83, student administrator of the program, explained.
By the third week of the program, however, the students had been adopted. The community Resource Center, after helping the students organize the project, tried to take control. When the students fought for their autonomy, the woman who headed the Center charged them with arrogance and tried to have them expelled from the Homes. But she had missed her chance. "The parents had a big meeting and came to our defense," Cameil Rainford '83 said, adding "The kids flocked to our side. She still resents us for coming in and taking her kids."
With the students finally obtaining a list of the children living in the Homes from the Resources Center, the volunteers began selecting children to participate in the program. But an unexpected source--division within the community itself--hampered their recruiting efforts.
The students learned quickly that Academy Homes' two sections, one fronting on Washington ST. and the other on Codman Park, fought like mismatched neighbors. "We wanted a diverse group and we thought we could get it just by knocking on doors," Parrette said, adding "We were wrong. We'd knock on doors at Codman Park and the people would say "Sure, our kid can be in the program--as long as you don't let anyone in from over there.'" But persistence paid off for the volunteers, who chose 45 children and officially launched the program
Again, their plan seemed workable: the counselors divided the children by age into groups of eight to ten and began meeting with them daily. Their object was to divide the time between academic work--math worksheets and reading--and excursions. On paper, it worked, but in practice it didn't.
"At the beginning I tried to get the kids to do school work," Rainford, who worked with 10 to 12-year-old girls, says. But Rainford quickly discovered that many of the kids lied about their ages to stay in the same group with their friends. "When we tried to read, it became evident that some were really good while others were lagging far behind. It just didn't work."
Parrette recalls that the older boys in particular refused to do traditional schoolwork. "They wouldn't read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, but they would read newspaper clipping enthusiastically," he added. The counselors adapted the "curriculum;" the older boys read the Boston Globe, Essence and Ebony and discussed topical issues while some of the younger kids continued to practice the three R's.
But daily administrative problems were the least of the counselors' worries. Even when the program itself ran smoothly, it was never an easy summer. The community division which the counselors discovered on Day One never abated. Codman park kids beat up Washington kids and vice versa; at least ten of the original 45 children dropped out midway through the program because of peer pressure.
"I had one little girl from Codman Park," Rainford remembered. "Everyone else was from Washington Street and they used to tease her when I wasn't around. One day I was late and she came early. They teased her about her clothes. She never came back. I tried to tell her just to ignore them, but it was kind of hard for a kid her age."
Violence at the housing project also kept the volunteers on edge all summer. The first night after the students moved in, Singleton's cousin died of a heroin overdose. The second night, a security guard trying to break up a block party was stabbed outside of the apartment; he used the students' phone to call an ambulance.