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School for scandal

Alumni in the know grade Fox TV's Boston Public

Photo of BC alums participating in a critique of "boston public""I would never sit through this whole program unless we were analyzing it," says Robert Belle '76. Belle is a robust man whose mere presence exudes authority. He is headmaster of Dorchester High School in Boston's inner city, a school
of 935 students.

Oscar Santos '94 teaches "Global Issues" and "English Literature and Composition" at Jamaica Plain's English High School, also in Boston, and he concurs. "Usually, if I'm watching the show, there's something so ridiculous I end up shutting it off."

Belle and Sanchez are among a group of high school teachers and administrators, all BC graduates, invited to Boston College Magazine's office after hours to watch television--specifically, to critique an episode of Fox's Boston Public.

The program is set in fictional Winslow High, an urban high school on the edge of Boston. It has been popular with viewers and critics alike since it first aired in October 2000. But when our Boston public school educators watch a videotaped episode, they act a little like high school students sitting in detention. They groan occasionally. They grouse. Eyeballs intermittently roll in pained displays of incredulity. One set of eyelids even droops conspicuously and remains shut for a few minutes.

Such responses may be an oblique way of saying that this Monday-night, prime-time drama does an injustice to the Boston public schools, despite the network's claim that the subplots are rooted in truth. They may also hint that the program no more credits the professional life of a public school educator than the culturally outmoded 1970s show Welcome Back, Kotter did. Then again, they might simply speak to the absurdity of this particular segment's plot.

In the Boston Public episode viewed by the faculty members, the sixth installment of the second season, the police storm into a classroom and arrest
a troubled student for statutory rape. A school secretary still has her job after posing as a student and publishing a sexually explicit advice column in the school paper. And a pupil suffers a seizure during an amphetamine-fueled rave that takes place in the school's hallway.

"Now, what's it called?" Joan Dolan '61, a career counselor at Dorchester High, asks when the onscreen teenagers start bouncing to techno music. "Rave, like R-A-V-E?" Judging from Dolan's inquiry, it's safe to assume raves don't happen in the corridors of Dorchester High School.

In the view of these educators, Boston Public's credibility
is completely lost when the program closes with a funeral for a teacher's amputated hand.

Photo of Kathy Baker "See, this student, his mother locked him in the basement for punishment," informs Dolan, who has seen enough episodes of Boston Public to provide context. "Then the boy went and locked the mom down there, and she accidentally cut her hand off with a chain saw trying to escape. So now, she has a hook and teaches at his school."

Maribel Pomales-Bunch '84, a bilingual special needs teacher who also works at Dorchester High, erupts. "How can anybody believe this is real?" Lopped-off extremities aside, Dolan insists that some acquaintances do take the program seriously--enough to ask her, "Is that really what goes on?"

Pomales-Bunch is visibly appalled. "I don't know why they'd think so. We haven't had a lot of big issues. What happened today"--"What happened today?" interrupts Giannina Sanchez '96, MA'00, a bilingual guidance counselor, also at Dorchester High. Dolan answers, "A teacher got killed in Springfield [Massachusetts]. He got stabbed to death."

The attacker, according to headmaster Belle, was a 17-year-old male. "It happened in school, in the building. The governor was just on TV." The killing was the first ever of a public school staff person in Massachusetts, and it brings this discussion of an hour's outlandish entertainment to an unfortunate, but relevant, truth: Sensationalist television fare poaches on some staggering realities. The national reputation of public schools has suffered in the wake of student shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, and elsewhere. Locally, this past November, a high school student in New Bedford, Massachusetts, confessed her involvement in a Columbine-inspired conspiracy to kill students and faculty. Belle agrees that the majority of Boston Public is "overdramatization." But the reality of the urban public high school, he says, is "no picnic" for students or teachers.

"There are a lot of things we deal with at the school that remind my co-workers of an episode of Boston Public," Belle says. "If you saw me handling a kid, sometimes it is something that should be on TV. I'm not choking the kid, I'm not punching him out, but I'm thinking on my feet to turn the situation around, so I can handle it. Sometimes I have to say, 'Boy, if you don't get over here and sit down, I'm gonna smack you upside your head.' My methods might be considered unsavory in other places, but it gets the job done in Dorchester."

Belle speaks from the perspective of someone whom the New York Times called for comment on the day of the Columbine massacre. "Sometimes," he continues, "administrators go home and people ask, 'How was your day today?' You'll say, 'Those kids. We had five fire alarms, two fights, a fire, and some kid had a knife.' And when people who've been out of schools for a long time hear that, they think it's always like that."

Joan Dolan takes up the point. Boston Public "picks the sensational parts of education," she says. "I take pride in my profession, and this show offends me." What bothers Dolan most about the show is its depiction of instructors. "They portray teachers tolerating things that we really would not tolerate. They highlight teachers having sex with kids, teachers not following the law. In one episode, a staff person actually takes a gun out and shoots it in class."

Oscar Santos says that Boston Public favors spectacular conflicts over the more prevalent problems facing urban schools. "Boston Public ignores the constant day-to-day struggles: kids getting 800 on their SATs because they can't take a Kaplan course, colleges overlooking inner city students, the fact that the majority of our school children are second-language learners, that parents are working 80 hours a week." Santos once asked pupils in his classroom to critique the show, and their response didn't surprise him: They "weren't feeling" Boston Public, he says--they didn't identify with it. "I would say about 50 percent of our school is African-American, and 35 percent is Latino," says Santos, and the student body limned by Boston Public slights both these groups. "They didn't like it mostly because it doesn't represent what Boston public schools are."

Camille Dodero '98

Camille Dodero is a freelance writer based in Boston.

1st photo: A scene from the real Boston Public: From left, Dorchester High School guidance counselor Giannina Sanchez '96, MA'00; headmaster Robert Belle '76; special needs teacher Maribel Pomales-Bunch '84; and career counselor Joan Dolan '61, in Pomales-Bunch's classroom. Oscar Santos '94 also participated in BCM's private screening.

Lee Pellegrini

2nd photo: Kathy Baker, from Boston Public

Carin Baer / Fox

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