“Who can find the most trash?”
That challenge from 17-year-old Jessica François sent a handful of children scrambling through the streets of their rural Nicaraguan village.
François, who lives in Dorchester, spent six weeks in Nicaragua as part of a program sponsored by “Amigos de las Américas,” a non-profit organization that sends high school and college students to help communities in Central and South America and the Caribbean through community service and leadership training.
“Their idea of community service is very different,” she said. “They want us to help the community do it for themselves, to be sustainable.”
In the village, she helped at a school and at a local clinic, where she gave oral vaccines to babies. The trash hunt was part of an environmental health class she taught.
“That was my favorite,” she recalled with a big smile. “Kids were running down the street screaming ‘over there!’” The children got prizes: “Candy — and a toothbrush.”
Jessica’s participation in “Amigos” was arranged by Summer Search, which she joined in 10th grade. She was nominated for Summer Search that year by Larry Geffin, her advisor at Commonwealth School, where Jessica is now a senior.
“Commonwealth introduces you to a lot of opportunities,” she said, and the school’s teachers have helped her to make the most of them. Knowing that the language wasn’t her strongest subject, Spanish teacher Frederique Thiebault-Adjout invited Jessica to drop by her house and talk, “just so I could practice before I left,” said Jessica.
The eye-opening and fulfilling summer may be one of her more iconic high school memories, but Jessica recognizes how so many parts of her life revolve around Commonwealth. She came to the private high school in Boston’s Back Bay three years ago, when she was unhappy at one of Boston’s largest and most selective public high schools. A best friend already going to Commonwealth suggested she take a look.
“I came to visit her a couple of times, and I just loved Commonwealth,” said Jessica. “Everybody was so nice, and I liked how the teachers paid so much attention to the kids.”
In the face of Jessica’s enthusiasm, her mother, who didn’t like the idea of private school at first, eventually came around.
“Commonwealth is a place for kids who really want to learn, including learning from other people,” observed Jessica.
The strength of those personal connections has enabled her to persevere in the school’s rigorous academic environment and given her friends and colleagues the ability to share the joy and triumph when she goes further than she thought she could.
The connection she has with her teachers is especially important, and Jessica singled out Catherine Brewster, an English teacher, when thinking about her favorite teachers and classes.
“Eleventh-grade English with her was really challenging, but I learned so much from it,” she said, noting that she and Brewster met every week outside of class to discuss readings and to work on Jessica’s writing.
“Last year we ended up talking a lot about how to make paragraphs coherent, how to write in ways that help a reader understand and share in what Jessica is saying,” said Brewster. “Now, I see a lot more confidence and cohesion in her essays.”
Even with a pair of part-time jobs, Jessica still makes time for her group of “great friends.” The lines that divide other schools into cliques are less of a factor in Commonwealth’s social life, she said. “Crossing the lines is OK — when you go to class, you’re just kicking it with friends.”
The cultural, economic, and geographic diversity among Commonwealth’s 150 students also adds to the education, as students share their stories and perspectives in and out of class.
Jessica, whose parents are Haitian, has fit in comfortably.
“I notice that students of color are in the minority here, but it’s not a problem, not in my acting, my dancing, or in class,” she said.
Diversity Director Lihuan Lai, who is also a Commonwealth graduate, says “Jessica quickly made friends with other students of color at Commonwealth.”
“She also has a substantial role on the Diversity Committee,” a group of about 25 students from many different backgrounds who hold meetings throughout the school year and plan an annual “Diversity Day” to raise awareness of issues related to ethnicity, class and sexual orientation.
“When she speaks, others listen,” said Lai.
At Commonwealth, Jessica has found a community that helps each student find his or her voice, and feeds his or her passion for learning.
“Commonwealth is a place where you can accomplish a lot and be satisfied,” she said, knowing that what her friends and teachers have learned and taught will serve her well for a long time.
For more information about Commonwealth School, call (617) 266-7525 or visit www.commschool.org.