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English High alumni to celebrate 200th anniversary

Alumni Association to hold gala Oct. 1

Anna Lamb
English High alumni to celebrate 200th anniversary
The second English High School building remained open until 1953. CITY OF BOSTON PHOTO ARCHIVE

For alumni of Boston’s English High School, the title of America’s “oldest public school” is one that many cherish.

Founded in 1821, English High School was created by the Boston School Committee, who had the novel idea that education should be free and accessible in the Commonwealth capital and who wanted an alternative to existing Latin schools offering a religious and classical curriculum to students.

According to the English High School Association (EHSA), the Latin schools served “primarily [as] a preparatory school for divinity students at Harvard” and had, albeit small at the time, a tuition barrier.

“There are nitpickers out there and people who are who are jealous or went to Latin School, who try to take away some of the credit,” said Stan Hurwitz, an English High grad and public relations officer for the association.

Hurwitz is, however, willing to bury the hatchet, inviting some of his Latin school rivals among other Bostonians, to celebrate the school’s bicentennial with a gala this October. It’s technically the 201st anniversary, but only a virtual event was held last year due to COVID.

Organized by EHSA members, including Board President Michael Thomas, the English High gala will serve to honor the school’s rich history and kick off a three-year campaign to fund scholarships along with the school’s tutoring center, arts and music program, and Career Pathways program.

“It’s seven different locations later, we’ve been relocated a number of times, but to educate the working class, families and children of those families — we’re really doing the same thing,” Thomas said in a conversation with the Banner.

English High’s first class, comprised of 101 boys from the Boston area, was held in the school’s original building — a school at the corner of Derne and Temple Streets, on Beacon Hill. The curriculum was aimed at business, mechanics, and engineering trades, with courses on English language, geography and mathematics. The school, established in part by Samuel Adams Wells, the grandson of former Governor Samuel Adams, was originally modeled after the Royal High School in Edinburgh, Scotland.

During its first years in existence, English High served many European immigrant families seeking to better their sons through secondary education. The school placed emphasis on career readiness, as well a component of patriotism, as many early graduates were involved in the school’s cadet program training soldiers to assist the North in the Civil War.

Many of English High’s notable alumni are servicemen, including Giles M. Pease, who served as a surgeon for the famous 54th Regiment, and Enoch Woodhouse, a Tuskegee Airman who served in World War II.

Other notable alumni include actor Leonard Nimoy, known for his role as Spock in the Star Trek series; Lawrence Berk, the founder of Berklee College of Music; singer Jordan Knight of New Kids on the Block; and titan of industry J.P. Morgan.

As for its physical location, between its inception and 1954, the school moved four times before landing across from Boston Latin School on Avenue Louis Pasteur in Roxbury, a site many older alumni are familiar with.

Carlton Ellis, a 1971 English High graduate, remembers his time at the school fondly.

“They actually wanted you to learn something. If you wanted to learn, you could get it,” he said. “They would give you the attention as you requested.”

Ellis, interested in history and science, remembers using models in class and being pushed to do his best by engaged teachers. In the background, early inklings of political activism at English were brewing — throughout the late ’60s and ’70s, Black students, who now surpassed European immigrants and white students as the majority of the school population with just over half of the student body, were calling on school officials to make the school more equitable.

In 1968, Black students, forming a student union, called for an elimination of English’s dress code so they could wear dashikis to school. And in 1970, nearly 150 students protested outside the school after allegations surfaced that the white headmaster had strangled a Black student. In early 1971, 200 students gathered in the school assembly hall to protest a Black student’s suspension after they say he was wrongly accused of breaking into a cafeteria worker’s locker.

Despite this history, Ellis recalls overall harmony in the student body.

“There were different people with all different walks of life at English, and they seemed to pretty much get along. I mean, everybody had the little cliques, but you know, that’s life,” he said.

The school again faced problems as the city’s desegregation efforts in the mid-1970s brought an influx of racial tensions to every school in the BPS system — English High being no exception. A 1974 Boston Globe article recounts an incident during which several English High students were injured in a violent protest-turned-riot in response to school integration.

Yet, English High, already accepting students from across the city from its inception, fared better than other BPS institutions where in-school violence persisted throughout the decade. During the desegregation period, English built a new school on the Roxbury property, created a magnet program to attract additional white students and, for the first time in its history, began accepting female students.

Harmony wouldn’t last, however. By the late 1980s, the school was again in dire disrepair and the student body was forced again to move — this time to the former Jamaica Plain High School building on McBride Street. With growing poverty and division within the student body between magnet and non-magnet kids, English High struggled to maintain accreditation and to graduate the majority of those who came through its doors.

English became “kind of a rough place to go to school in the 1990s and 2000s,” Thomas said in an interview. “My sense is somehow somewhere along there, something got lost somehow, and whether it was the culture, whether it was the headmasters, the school was a rough place.”

Thomas credits Ligia Noriega-Murphy — the school’s first female headmaster, hired in 2012 — as the reason his alma mater still exists today.

He recounted a comment made by then-BPS Superintendent Carol Johnson.

“She said, ‘Ligia, you’re either going to turn that school around, or we’re going to close it,’” Thomas recounted.

He said an upward trajectory has continued under the current headmaster, Caitlin Murphy. Murphy began as a History teacher in 2009, before working her way up to assistant headmaster and now as the school lead. Thomas noted that under Murphy, the school’s graduation rate has increased from 52% to about 82%.

Murphy, in a letter to the student body earlier this year, points to the success of music and arts programs, Career Pathways and dedicated teaching staff as just a few ways the school has been able to make improvements.

“We are deeply committed to our roots as the nation’s first public high school, serving all students in the City of Boston and helping each student who enters our doors to become an intellectual, a passionate debater, a driven and motivated citizen of the world, and an empathetic friend,” Murphy wrote.

More information related to the EHSA 200th Anniversary Gala on Oct. 1 in Boston can be found on the English High School Association website: englishhighalumni.org.

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