Boston Collegiate readies students for courageous conversations

In a racially diverse Boston-area charter school, multi-grade small-group teams have courageous conversations about race and anything else the students find troubling.

Boston Collegiate, in Dorchester, Massachusetts, is not an “intentionally diverse” charter school, writes Richard Whitmire in The 74. No special admissions rules or boundary gerrymanders exist to promote diversity. It just works out that way.

The white students are not drawn from the Boston’s upper classes, but rather are from South Boston. The black students typically live in Roxbury and Mattapan. Parents of the students, regardless of race, are typically cops, firefighters, nurses, janitors, and child care providers.

At a school like Boston Collegiate, it might seem logical that teachers would want to sidestep or straddle such touchy issues as President Donald Trump, Black Lives Matter, or national anthem protests. But just the opposite happens. Everything gets hashed out, sometimes painfully.

“Each year, the students get more comfortable talking about these topics in racially mixed groups,” Whitmire writes. “But that’s the world in which they live. More tricky than students are the parents. As one teacher bluntly put it, the students here are more evolved than their parents.”

“Character education in charter schools is sometimes fraught with potential for, and the reality of, racial tension,” writes Patricia Maloney in The Content of Their Charactera summary of character research in 10 sectors of American high schools, forthcoming from the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.

Boston Collegiate’s unique racial mix makes it a fascinating case study for cultivating intellectual courage. The Intellectual Virtues Academy defines this as “a readiness to persist in thinking or communicating in the face of fear, including the fear of embarrassment or failure,” and offers a guide for building this and other intellectual virtues.

The purpose of the school’s “Cross Grade Communities” is to nurture intellectual courage. In a recent session students were asked to define microaggressions, to say whether they have experienced them, and to discuss what individuals can do to improve school climate.

In this school, the students understand that these courageous conversations set them apart from their peers at other schools. “This school doesn’t allow race to define you. You choose to define who you are,” says senior Korde Oyenuga, who was born in Nigeria. Senior Justin Dalmatin concludes, “We’re going to be one step ahead of everyone else in college.”

That’s impressive—since most students will be first-generation college students. And that’s why there’s a waiting list 1,500 names long to get into Boston Collegiate.