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Dearborn school deserves to be saved, residents say

After growing up across from the Dearborn, Horace Howard, 63, is among the neighborhood  residents who are hoping to stop the city from tearing it down to make way for a new school.

Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

After growing up across from the Dearborn, Horace Howard, 63, is among the neighborhood residents who are hoping to stop the city from tearing it down to make way for a new school.

The idea was attractive to parents and school officials: Replace an aging and struggling Roxbury school with a state-of-the-art, $70.7 million facility whose focus on science, technology, engineering, and math would better position students for future employment.

But five months after it gained state approval, the ambitious plan for the Dearborn STEM Academy project is proving less popular among some nearby residents. They say they have been largely left in the dark as city, state, and school officials move to raze a historic building that has been a neighborhood fixture for more than a century.

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“They want to put this brand-new modern structure that no more fits into the character of our neighborhood than . . . topping ice cream with motor oil,” said Carl Todisco, a 35-year Roxbury resident who lives on Winthrop Street, near the school. “I don’t want people to think that we aren’t for education; we are. But we’re also for preserving the integrity of the neighborhood.”

A group of residents has been collecting signatures on a petition to be submitted to Mayor Martin J. Walsh, calling for the city to revisit the plan to replace the Dearborn building.

Their concerns include what they describe as the failure by the city to adequately consult neighbors before settling on the demolition plan; the addition of three grades could bring afternoon traffic to a standstill on the neighborhood’s narrow, sloped streets; and potential other uses of the building, such as for a high school or housing, were not discussed. The petition also cites several vacant lots and buildings in nearby Dudley Square and Uphams Corner where the academy could be built.

Horace Howard, Nadine Riggs, and Carl Todisco in front of the Dearborn School.

Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

Horace Howard, Nadine Riggs, and Carl Todisco in front of the Dearborn School.

Nearby residents and property owners plan to meet Tuesday at Southern Baptist Church on Winthrop Street to discuss the petition, which they said had 70 signatures Monday.

The STEM academy would be the city’s first new public school building in more than a decade. Adding further complexity, district officials recently proposed opening it as an “in-district” charter school.

‘We’re in this whole movement of recycle, reuse. There’s a beautiful building, and you just want to tear it down.’

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Residents interviewed Monday say that the Greenville Street building, dedicated in 1912, is as much a part of the landscape as the rows of three-deckers and apartments. It formerly served as the High School of Practical Arts, Girls’ High School, and, most recently, the Dearborn Middle School. It is part of Roxbury’s Moreland Street Historic District, though it is not separately designated as a historical landmark.

“People are proud of the fact that this neighborhood is a historic district,” said Lorraine Wheeler, a Moreland Street resident involved in the petition. “They just believe that the architecture of that school building fits with the neighborhood. At the very least they just want to walk through the process of whether there are better functions for that school.”

Spokesman Brian Ballou said Monday that the school district had given proper notice for all of the meetings concerning the Dearborn project, and residents will be notified about the demolition plans by mail at a later date.

Construction is scheduled to begin next year.

He said no other sites were considered for the STEM academy after an original plan calling for renovations to the existing building was rejected.

On the traffic concerns, Ballou said, designated drop-off and pickup spots at the new facility would “practically eliminate the congestion that previously occurred on Greenville and Winthrop streets in the morning and afternoons.”

Nadine Riggs, a 51-year-old who lives across the street from the school, says she feels the details of the plan were kept under wraps for too long.

Riggs said she received a blue flier last July advising “The Dearborn School is Changing” that turned out to be from another neighborhood group. She didn’t think much of it at the time, she said, as few took it seriously because it lacked a letterhead or an official seal.

No one, she said, thought the fate of the towering brick building itself was in jeopardy. She and other residents said they received official notices from the school district concerning meetings last fall, but said the notices did not go into specifics.

Riggs said the decision to demolish the building seems paradoxical.

“In this country we’re in this whole movement of recycle, reuse,” she said. “There’s a beautiful building, and you just want to tear it down.”

Boston City Council member Tito Jackson, who represents Roxbury and who chairs the Education Committee, acknowledged the residents’ concerns Monday, but said a school offering the STEM curriculum would prove fruitful for Roxbury. He said Boston needs such a school, as a technologically advanced city in the 21st century.

“The community engagement component could have been done better,” he said, “but I think we have to figure out how to give this opportunity to people, young people and families.”

Faiz Siddiqui can be reached at faiz.siddiqui@globe.com.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Carl Todisco’s name in a caption.

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