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The Commonwealth School: Open eyes and open minds

Tristan Davies
The Commonwealth School: Open eyes and open minds
Commonwealth School seniors Symone Williams (left) and Lauren Derosa listen in class. Williams says the biggest thing that makes Commonwealth different from other schools “is that we’re all really close … I know I can call my advisor any time.” (Photo: Tom Kates)

“When you come to Commonwealth School, you’re going to need a passport,” laughs Symone Williams, a senior at the school who spent three weeks last summer in Cape Town, South Africa.

Thinking about the contrast between the boarding school where she stayed in an affluent white neighborhood and the poverty of Wallace Dean Township, a nearby community of black and “colored” families, Symone’s smile fades.

“It’s heartbreaking, and it was really hard to see,” she says. Her time in Cape Town focused on community service in the township, helping local teenagers learn about computers, technology and communication.

“Not that they all needed help,” she adds. “They were an extraordinary group of youths.”

The trip to South Africa was the most recent of several international trips Symone has been able to make through the school and with its financial help, and followed her nomination by the school to Summer Search, the national leadership development project that offered the Cape Town program. Symone has now seen Mexico, Spain and Peru, and joined several students and teachers to represent Commonwealth at a diversity conference in Seattle.

This engagement with the world springs naturally from Commonwealth’s location, just two blocks from Copley Square. The entire city becomes part of the campus, as students do research at the Boston Public Library, explore neighborhoods as part of the ninth-grade City of Boston course, and perform community service and internships across the city and its suburbs.

“We have always wanted our students to appreciate the people and culture of Boston,” notes Headmaster Bill Wharton. “Traveling across the city, and outside the U.S, we ask our students to stretch their minds, to analyze and compare, as they absorb all of the new surroundings. It is an extension of the kinds of thinking and writing we ask of them in the classroom.”

The excitement of seeing the world through diverse points of view has been part of Commonwealth since it opened 50 years ago. The school, which enrolls 155 students in grades nine through 12, was founded and led for its first 24 years by Charles Merrill, an educator and philanthropist who also spent 15 years as chair of the Morehouse College Board of Trustees.

Today, works from cultures around the world are incorporated into English classes, and the 10th-grade medieval history class looks at the period in Asia and the Islamic world, as well as Europe. Electives in African, African American, Asian and Latin American literature, language, arts and history help students further explore their interests.

The multifaceted curriculum is reflected in the school’s Diversity Committee, a group of 15 to 20 students who meet weekly. Led by a teacher or one another, students talk about a range of issues from world events to the school’s social life.

The committee also organizes the school-wide Diversity Day each spring. Earlier this year, the entire school watched and discussed Barack Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech. Afternoon workshops led by faculty and students addressed the power of language, socioeconomic diversity, and gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgender issues.

The school asks much of its students, but they are not expected to succeed alone.

“The biggest thing that makes Commonwealth different from other schools is that we’re all really close,” says Symone. “I know I can call my advisor any time, even at home. He’s like a father to me, and every one of my friends has a teacher like that.”

This warm and welcoming community provides informal and formal support. The Homework Project, a new addition, identifies students who are having trouble completing assignments on time, and invites them to sign up for 10-week blocks of guided study time after the regular school day, with meals and transportation provided.

“I think Commonwealth has made my passion for social justice stronger,” says Symone, who plans to major in women’s studies and public health in college. “I want to eradicate poverty, and work especially with the black population and immigrant populations. I’d like to work on HIV/AIDS prevention also.”

The scholarly excitement, artistic exuberance, respect for each individual, and close friendships among students and teachers creates a unique experience. Students emerge ready to face the new challenges of college and adulthood. They do so with impressive results — popular college choices in recent years include Princeton, Yale, Harvard, Carleton, and Bryn Mawr.

Symone Williams sums it up this way: “Everything I’ve learned at Commonwealth makes me want to change the world.”