Back to school
Jeremiah E. Burke High’s first reunion in decades brings back old friends and treasured memories to a newly renovated building
If the walls of the Jeremiah E. Burke High School in Dorchester could talk, those concrete blocks would remember the first kiss high school sweethearts Darren Graham and Danielle Hines shared in the 1980s.
“It was in the stairwell on the third floor,’’ Danielle Hines-Graham revealed with a sly smile, amid squeals of recognition and celebration at the first Burke High School reunion in decades. Graham is now her husband of 20 years.
No Burke class since at least 1980 has ever had an official reunion. This weekend marks a series of events celebrating alumni from 1980 to 2000, culminating in a dance party last night and a cookout today at Franklin Park.
Burke Bulldog pride ran high Friday night as current high school cheerleaders dressed in school colors of blue and white led scores of alumni on a tour of the newly renovated school chanting, “We are the bulldogs!’’
“I’m kind of trippin’ right now,’’ said Teshawn King, a rising Boston R&B singer who graduated in 1990.
King, who performed last night at the reunion party held at the Boston Teachers’ Union Hall, walked through the Burke’s art deco front doors for the first time since graduation. He was transported “Twilight Zone’’-style back to the ’80s, when Babyface and Luther Vandross topped the R&B charts and nobody dreamed the Burke would one day house a state-of-the-art computer lab and television production studio.
“I can hear that music,’’ he said, imitating the “Twilight Zone’’ theme.
Located in Grove Hall, one of the poorest, toughest neighborhoods in Boston, the Burke once had a reputation as a school students were happy to flee and forget. Graffiti once covered the halls. Clocks dangled by wires. The school was viewed as dumping ground for transient students and lost its accreditation in the mid-1990s.
“When I first walked in here it was a like a scene from that movie ‘Lean on Me,’ ’’ said Arcena Anderson-McMillan, the school’s cheerleading coach from 1987 to 2000, who started at the Burke as an assistant in the 1980s and came to the reunion from her home in Birmingham, Ala.
Though Morgan Freeman never walked the Burke’s halls with a baseball bat, a host of real-life reformers have struggled to turn chaos into peace and achievement. Almost $50 million worth of renovations are complete, including a new library, cafeteria, and gym.
Administrators proclaim the Burke the safest school in the district based on school police statistics, and the drop-out rate has tumbled from 21 percent in 2007 to 8 percent the last school year. The number of suspensions also fell from 416 in 2008 to 47 last year.
Academic performance at the Burke, though, is still a rollercoaster, Lindsa McIntyre, the headmaster, acknowledged Friday night as she greeted arriving alumni.
In 2010, the state identified the Burke as one of 12 underperforming schools and all of the staff had to reapply for jobs.
“I think we’re on solid ground now,’’ McIntyre said after a year that saw improvements in MCAS participation, some test scores, and graduation rates. “The one thing that doesn’t change is the feeling of family.’’
She credited the alumni committee with building spirit for the past year. It held weekly bake sales at the school to fund two alumni scholarships and plans to hold an annual barbecue for alumni.
Success stories weren’t hard to find among the reunion attendees, though many recalled classmates who wound up in prison or killed during gang warfare.
Terrence “Big T’’ Lewis graduated from the Burke in 1982. He attended college at Babson and went on to earn his master’s of business administration from Harvard. He works in marketing operations for
“We’d do our wind sprints right here,’’ Lewis said Friday, explaining how fellow athletes ran up and down the halls and stairways for their workouts because there were no facilities.
He recalled a classmate who kept a gun in the locker next to his. Lewis mostly stayed out of trouble, he said, but was known to sneak out of school to hang out with friends at a Stop & Shop near the school.
“We got bologna sandwiches,’’ he said, laughing with classmate Andre Bridges Sr.
“If these walls could talk,’’ Bridges teased some other alumni, “you’d be in trouble.’’
The idea of holding a reunion began as a joke on Facebook and snowballed as Burke alumni voiced support, according to Kirby Wideman of the 11-member organizing committee.
Planning began a year ago and organizers persevered through internal squabbles and fear of lack of funds.
The committee sold 250 tickets for the dance party last night and sold T-shirts in hopes those who attend the cookout today will arrived decked out in Bulldog blue and white and ready to play softball.
“I haven’t seen some of these people in 25 years,’’ said Wideman, who graduated in 1987 and works as a chef.
“We’re coming together to celebrate our success,’’ said committee member Linda Parker, who graduated in 1988 and teaches in Boston schools.
Darryl Sylvia, who graduated from the Burke in 1980, arrived from Southfield, Mich., for the reunion. He grew up on Intervale Street near the school and described himself as having “an attitude problem’’ as a teenager.
Now an administrator for the international law firm Miller Canfield, Sylvia struck a wistful tone as he walked around the school he hadn’t seen in 30 years. “This is where I’m from. This is where I grew up,’’ he said. “This will always be my high school.’’
J.M. Lawrence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.