On a Friday night in early December, the students of the Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy paired formal threads with their finest kicks to attend their much anticipated SneakerBall.
Middle-schoolers danced to Cardi B, freestyled their own lyrics on a mic in the cafeteria, and feasted on pizza provided by parents.
There was so much to celebrate.
Teachers adorned a wall with coloring book photos of sneakers. The kids outlined two dimensional shoes with glitter, colored some like pizza dripping with cheese, and designed other with razor sharp teeth along the side.
The best artist of the night won tickets to a Celtics game. There was a dance team performance and poetry by Je-Niya Howard, who just started at the school this fall. Asked to write about inequality, she called the poem “Black and White":
Why is it that you think we have to be identical
Why should we confine ourselves to the rules of an unfair society?
I don’t see what you see. I don’t see in black and white.
The Dorchester school saw their highest growth in years on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System scores, specifically in six and eighth grade. Their highest achievement came from in English language learners in mathematics, a victory for a multitude of reasons. It showed school administrators that their kids were not immediately derailed — at least academically — by the difficult incident that disrupted their testing season in mid-May.
Back then, the charter school made headlines as a result of the harassment, alleged racial profiling, and discrimination its students experienced on a field trip to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. It turned into one of the most high-profile stories of the year.
The trip was a reward for more than two dozen of the Helen Y. Davis’ seventh grade honor roll students for good grades and good behavior.
Many of the students now remember that moment as their first experience with racism, a communal trauma and cruel rite of passage that changed the way Ariani G. looked at the world. Her mother asked that we not use her full last name.
“It opened my eyes on how the real world would be,” Ariani said. “And how they’ll judge you for who you are, no matter where you are. People will judge you. Sometimes you just gotta move on and just think positive and be confident in yourself.”
WBUR was among the many media organizations that wrote about the middle schooler’s experience after their teacher Marvelyne Lamy shared her account on Facebook. She and her students claim they were allegedly followed around galleries by museum guards who acted hypervigilant around her black and brown students, while seemingly ignoring groups of white students.
In the MFA’s Gender Bending Fashion exhibit on display at the time, a woman told students practicing their model walk that they should “spend more time learning and less time stripping." Outside an African exhibit, another patron referred to the students as “[expletive] black kids."
“[The incident at the MFA] could have been something that held us back,” said Helen Y. Davis Principal Arturo Forrest. “But from the beginning, our whole stance was our school's very strong. We're not going to be defined by something negative when there's so much positivity in the building and in our school community.”
Attorney General Maura Healey’s office is continuing to investigate and the museum's independent investigation is also ongoing. The MFA has made changes, which includes a new greeting process for students groups on field trips and additional staffing.
The school also did its part. Teachers processed what happened with the kids. They listened. They shared their own experiences. This fall, the staff at the Helen Y. Davis took its students to see the film "Harriet" about Harriet Tubman. The school is the kind of place where a teacher makes African head wraps. They’re available for free at the front office and young women sometimes gather in a circle to learn how to tie these colorful pieces of cloth.
In the cafeteria are two portraits, a young black man and a young black woman. Each of their faces is half-human, half-Black Panther. The school is modeled after Historically Black Colleges and Universities such as Howard University and Spelman College.
“We train our students [to know that] … society is not going to be on your side,” Forrest said. “And so we had an incident last year that reaffirmed that for them. But, we always teach our kids to be survivors. We teach our kids they came from greatness."
Here, Ariani G. never questioned whether she belongs. Her middle school taught her to remember her ancestors, to take on the world by fully owning who she is.
But changes are on the horizon. Now an eighth grader attending open houses at local high schools, she’s realizing she may be one of the few students of color.
“It is sometimes back in my head like, ‘They'll treat me probably like the MFA,’ ” she said. “But I just gotta push through because based on what I want to be when I grow up, that's the path I have to go through.”