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BOWDITCH SCHOOL – A Lesson Of The Past Was Forgotten

Our Kids Should Never Be Statistics

They Are Not a Number And Deserve An Explanation

By William Legault

A long time ago, in a Salem that a few remember, but many have never known, a city official, or a group of city officials had a brain storm.  Their failure should never had been forgotten.

In May of 1971  the Archdiocese of Boston announced that St. Mary’s Catholic School, a K-8 institution on Hawthorne Boulevard was closing. In a city that once boasted 11 Catholic schools, this was seen as a harbinger of things to come. It was anticipated that over the next ten years the Salem Public Schools would see large influx of students booted from their comfortable Catholic school desks. Those students combined with the burgeoning Dominican and Puerto Rican school age population created worries in a few, and fear in others.  They worried what to do to address the situation.

The solution was so simple it was scary. It was also very wrong. It was decided to lease the Hawthorne Boulevard building for the Archdiocese and use it to educate all of the grammar school aged kids from the Point neighborhood. They also threw in the kids from a part of the Derby Street neighborhood which at the time was seen as a less than desirable area of the city. Putting all of the poorer kids in the same building solved a lot of problems. It was a segregated school by design, although no one would ever say it, and even now would probably not admit it.

This was before words like demographic and lower-median income became common, It was before MCAS and all of the other government approved testing programs became the dominant force in American education. There was standardized testing, but teachers were allowed to teach.

When it came time to staff the school, they brought in a established principal, but ended up with a group of teachers that ranged from the burned out, emotionally exhausted, or angry at the world. He knew it was a lost cause early on and spent most of his time putting out fires. There were exceptions of course, a few solid teachers were in the mix and their classrooms became a place of shelter from the chaos that prevailed in the halls and other classrooms. A screaming math teacher, a sometimes catatonic science teacher who would suddenly lash out in anger, a social studies teacher who would often break out in tears, and a English teacher who never taught were daily highlights.  The Hawthorne School had it all. Through it all the kids persevered and got along. They weren’t the problem.

City officials were smart enough to call off the failed experiment after three years. The students were then dispersed into the Phillips School and the Saltonstall School. A headline in the Salem Evening News blared “Salem Ghetto School Closes.” The better students were able to recover from three years of educational neglect, but many of the lesser students had a harder time of it, or never recovered. They had three years of their education stolen from them and were made to feel unwanted.

The current disaster that is the Bowditch School cannot be brushed aside. People knew what was happening. Decisions were made and the result is clearly failure. The students and parents of the Bowditch School deserved better. They deserved stability in administration, curriculum, and teaching staff. Instead we repeated a sin of the past. How we got there, why we got there are fodder for conversation and argument now. A solution must be found that does not punish further the students who somehow found family and friends in a bad situation.

Somewhere, someone in the City administration needs to stand up and be accountable. As someone who sat on the city council for three years, I feel responsibility here and apologize for being unaware.

As a student of the Hawthorne School, the ghetto school of Salem who was set adrift by city leaders, I feel the pain of the Bowditch students. They deserve better. The Mayor and the superintendent should sit alone with the students and explain to them just how they let them down. That deserve at least that.

I suggest that Bowditch School remain open and given the resources it needs and as each year moves forward we take steps to make sure that it’s student body, and the student body of every school in Salem represents who we are. The real problem here is the Horace Mann School, and I would suggest that there is a nice school building on Harbor Street that could use some love and renovations.  Let’s lease it from the Archdiocese until the SSU South Campus plan becomes a reality.  Maybe we can do better than we did in 1971.


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