On the wrong side of the highway: Harbor Point’s fight for Dorchester students

The field next to McCormack Middle School, which is currently at the center of a clash between Boston Public Schools and the Harbor Point community. Photo by Katharine Swindells/ BU News Service

By Katharine Swindells
BU News Service

In the late 1970s, the isolated public housing project on the bay of the East Dorchester peninsula was considered one of the most dangerous in the country.

Today Harbor Point is an economically and racially diverse community, cut off from the rest of Boston by the Southeast Expressway on one side and the water on the other. It boasts a gym, pool and tennis courts. It is virtually unrecognizable from 40 years ago.

One-third of the 1,200 apartments and houses are subsidized, and 70% of those are families with children, said Orlando Perilla, executive director of the Harbor Point Community Task Force. One of the task force’s top priorities is supporting their 450 young people by providing social activities, tutoring and education scholarships, all funded through Harbor Point rents. 

But despite the work that this isolated complex puts into creating a nurturing community, the past year has found them clashing with the Boston Public School system over what is best for the local young people.

“They think that they can make decisions for other people or neighborhoods … and they disregard the opinion of the residents of those areas,” Perilla said. “If this was a neighborhood that was majority white, I think that we would be treated a little bit differently.”

Community advocacy is in Harbor Point’s DNA. Jane Roessner, an academic who wrote a history book about the area, said that when Harbor Point, then called Columbia Point, was built in 1954, it was a racially-integrated public housing project with a strong local spirit, but in the late 60s and early 70s, Columbia Point was “abandoned” by the Boston Housing Authority. With broken elevators and rats, the place became increasingly unfit to live in, and crime and gang violence took over the area.

“There came a point where ambulances and the fire service wouldn’t go in without a police escort,” Roessner said. “So the ones that could afford to leave left, and the ones who remained were really stranded.”

The Columbia Point that remained was a shell of a community, with some seven-story buildings housing only 10 families.

Despite this, Roessner said, there remained a “small but strong surviving core of residents,” in particular, a number of black women who ran the Columbia Point Community Task Force.

When CMJ Management group wanted to redevelop Columbia Point in 1978, the task force feared that they would be forced out after the renovation. They negotiated with the property managers that all existing residents were to be guaranteed housing, with rents at no more than 25% of their income and their task force would be involved in decision-making throughout the process.

These low-income families invested in improving their homes form the foundation of Harbor Point. This spirit is what can be seen today, as Harbor Point residents again fight for their community and their children.

The fight for McCormack

Last year BPS announced they would shut down the local McCormack Middle School, and the community successfully rallied to reverse the decision. This year they’re taking that same energy back to BPS to argue against them building on a piece of land that the children play on.

For 14-year-old Amanj Omar, Harbor Point is the only home he’s ever known. His parents immigrated to Boston from Iraq and settled in Harbor Point. His father, an Uber driver, sits on the Harbor Point task force board.

A freshman at Fenway High School, Omar has his sights set on law school, though his main concern right now is figuring out how to manage the increase in homework from middle school.

The taskforce puts a lot of emphasis on education, Perilla said, providing financial assistance for textbooks and materials and setting up mentoring with university students from across the city. Perilla will even attend school meetings with parents when students are struggling, to help them understand and advocate for their children.

Before Fenway High, Omar was a student at McCormack, which sits just opposite Harbor Point, less than a 10-minute walk from the furthest apartments, and is home to around 400 sixth through eighth graders.

“I’m into high school now, but even after we leave the school, students still come back and support it because they built that relationship with the teachers and the community there,” Omar said. “It feels like home; it’s just a place where we can go and feel safe.”

The school, which mainly takes students from Dorchester and Roxbury, is less than 5% white, compared to the 15% district-wide, according the Massachusetts Department of Education’s statistics for the 2018-19 school year. Over half of the students’ first language is not English, over a quarter have disabilities. Ninety-three percent are designated “high need.”

“There was this one time where I got in a sort of bad situation with my English teacher, and then my science teacher stayed with me at school until like 6 p.m., right before Thanksgiving, to write her an email apologizing,” Omar said. “Like they build that kind of relationship where they stay after school with you. They will take time with you.”

In October 2018, BPS told McCormack staff that the school would be shut down, with the students transferred to Excel High School in South Boston. There was no plan for the staff.  

Neema Avashia, an eighth-grade civics teacher at McCormack, said that they were made to break the news to the students who felt that, as a school that is majority non-white and low-income and with a high proportion of English language learners, they were being dismissed by the school district.

“We have a lot of kids who experience trauma, kids from Roxbury and Dorchester, neighborhoods that experience a higher-level violence than other parts of the city,” Avashia said. “To me, that’s also a really alarming part of this, the lack of thoughtfulness and transparency and inclusiveness and planning for marginalized communities.”

Avashia rallied students such as Omar, as well as teachers, parents and local residents in lobbying BPS to reverse the decision and, a month later, they did.

It was agreed that in summer 2020, McCormack students would be temporarily moved to the site of the Irving School in Roslindale while the building was renovated. Then it would reopen as a grade 7-12 school and combined with Boston Community Leadership Academy, a high school currently in Hyde Park, as part of ‘BuildBPS,’ the city’s 10-year education plan.

Currently, McCormack’s renovation has been put on hold while Superintendent Brenda Cassellius, who took on the role in July, reviews the BuildBPS plan.

Avashia said she hopes this means the plan is being looked at as a whole educational vision that goes beyond just the school, encompassing the surrounding area including its neighbor Dever Elementary.

A new challenge

Harbor Point might have thought that was the end of it, but since October, the community has been back at odds with BPS over a patch of land next to McCormack Middle School that the kids use at recess.

BPS School Committee voted the land as ‘surplus,’ arguing that partnering with a private developer would allow them to build on the land at no cost to the city. The committee is considering allowing the Boys and Girls Club of Dorchester to build a large indoor recreation center on it.

The land is owned by BPS, Perilla said, but was created by Harbor Point in the 80s and has been maintained by them since for McCormack students and Harbor Point residents. The debate is even more frustrating following last year’s agreed expansion of McCormack, which would take it from 400 students to 900.

“I want my kids to move on to school with an open space to get vital sunlight, relieve academic stress, play different sports, participate in outdoor academic activities, build friendships, breathe fresh air,” Rondik Ahmed, a Kurdish immigrant and Harbor Point resident with two children at Dever Elementary, told the BPS Committee meeting in November.

Avashia said that for some of her students, this is the only green space they may get to play on.

“I have kids who say they don’t get to sit under a tree anywhere else except here,” Avashia said. “If you don’t come from that experience then maybe you don’t understand the value of our scraggly field with its five trees, but the people who are having that experience have a right to say what they would want to happen to that land.”

There have been nine meetings with community groups around McCormack, and BPS still welcomes input throughout the process, according to Rob Consalvo, BPS Senior Advisor. But Perilla said Harbor Point felt those meetings were “box-checking” rather than genuine opportunities for feedback.

For an educator like Avashia, she said this is clearly an issue about race and class. The way she sees it, white schools get a strategic plan with a full consultation, while her students have to fight over every decision that gets made on their behalf.

“It just seems to be very evident that when white, middle-class families are involved, the way those schools get treated feels really different,” she said. “The way they’ve acted towards McCormack the past two years is basically like our voices don’t matter until we throw a tantrum.”

The one positive, Avashia said, is that the McCormack fight has shown the students that they can get their voices heard in the democratic process. For students like Amanj Omar, organizing to save their school, and then winning, was empowering.

What he’s learned, Omar said, is just how disconnected politicians are from the lives of him and his classmates and the things that matter to them, especially when he heard Mayor Martin Walsh talking about their school yard on the radio. 

“He said, it’s just a field. Basically, be quiet, suck it up and deal with it – that’s how we all take it,” Omar said. “How are we supposed to look up to him? He’s the Mayor of Boston, we need him to be a role model for students but he’s clearly not.”

1 Comment

  • I understand the McCormack side of this, but Orlando and his Harbor Point have so much beautiful outdoor space for the kids in their community. It’s weird to me that they don’t use it. I know that the youth center uses it when there is good weather, but I never see any else from the community using it.

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