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UMass panel urges more black professionals at BPS

Kenneth J. Cooper | 2/7/2012, 7:24 p.m.

Boston public schools are looking to expand partnerships with black businesses in an effort to introduce professional role models, increase career awareness and promote academic achievement among black students.

 The sessions have provided opportunities for students to shadow professionals during work days and enabled some students to work as interns for academic credit or pay.

Students get exposed to model professional behavior and learn solid work habits like showing up on time. They also acquire skills needed to succeed in school, such as critical thinking and both written and oral communication.

Attorney Joseph D. Feaster Jr. said he has at times arranged for students from Fenway High School to shadow him for a week or two. “Some of them I took into court, into judge’s chambers,” said Feaster, a counsel at McKenzie and Associates. He also required students to write a report.

Randall Davis, a partner at Daniel Dennis and Co., said the accounting firm has hired high school students over the summer.Previously he taught entrepreneurship in schools through the Junior Achievement program.

Kelley Chunn said in the past high school students have interned for pay or academic credit at her public relations and marketing firm, Kelley Chunn and Associates.

Such partnerships — the panelists and Superintendent Carol R. Johnson agreed during a meeting last week at UMass Boston — have been episodic. There was an agreement to strive for a more sustained engagement between black businesses and the schools.

“There’s not a systematic approach,” said Johnson. “Our students may or may not have experience with professionals who look like them.”

Not having that exposure, she said, can tamp down black students’ “aspiration level, their ability to imagine themselves sitting in that seat” of a professional or business owner.

Johnson said one reason for the limited exposure is that more than 60 percent of the system’s teachers are white and may not be acquainted with black entrepreneurs. “Our teaching workforce is not as diverse as it needs to be,” she said.

Despite that handicap, the superintendent vowed to rebuild the school system’s infrastructure to support and expand such partnerships because “there is a lot of opportunity.”

David Lee, a partner in the architecture firm Stull and Lee Inc., agreed. “It has been too episodic. It’s possible to be systematic, and we do have the networks,” said Lee.

He and the other panelists suggested several approaches to expanding partnerships.

“Let’s talk about adopting schools or classes,” said Feaster.

James Jennings, a Tufts University professor who moderated the discussion, said collaboratives that bring together black-owned enterprises might do the adopting.

“Target two or three schools that are struggling and make a commitment to turn them around,” he said.

Chunn said the renewed effort could start as a pilot project. In addition, she suggested the school system consider placing a requirement on its vendors that they provide part-time jobs or internships to students. “Just as there are other requirements on vendors, why can’t that be a requirement?”

Visits to schools should experiment with new, interactive modes of communication and with teams of professionals of various ages making presentations, Lee said, not just the older, most established ones.

Davis cited a continuing need for a standard form of engagement such as career fairs, where students learn about different occupations they might pursue.

Kenneth Guscott, who has retired from his real estate firm Longbay Management Co., broached the idea of Saturday programs for students and their parents, similar to the one the late Joseph D. Warren directed at Northeastern University.

Besides businesses, the school system is working to build partnerships with faith-based institutions, Johnson said.

The seminar last week, sponsored by the Trotter Institute at UMass Boston, was the second in a series of meetings between Johnson and “elders” of the black community. Two other sessions are planned.