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Yvonne Abraham

School lessons, for life

Bummed about summer’s end? Here’s a back-to-school story to cheer you as the warmth drains away.

Codman Academy was abuzz late Tuesday afternoon. Teachers sat in groups in the Dorchester school’s black-box theater, preparing for the new academic year. Others spruced up classrooms. A few students hung around, chatting, unable to stay away from the school, even in their last weeks of freedom.

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Among the dozens preparing for the start of school were six who know the place as no one else could: They had all been students at the charter school. Now, launched into adulthood and the lives their parents had hoped for, they have chosen to come back, to pass on their lessons, and learn new ones.

Here was first grade teaching fellow Tyrell Brewster, 24, who thrived at Codman and graduated from college even though he was homeless. And his classmate Kat Bonilla, an assistant teacher for second grade. A once-middling student who was struck by a pickup truck one snowy morning when she was a freshman, she recovered and shone here. And Nefta Ramsey, 27, who learned here how to think and serve. An administrator who holds the lower school together, she sits on Codman’s parent council now that her own 5-year-old is a student.

“Codman had this mothering role for me,” Ramsey said. “I wanted to give back, to work in a school that provides that to others.”

What we have here is the fulfillment of a promise made when the school first opened 14 years ago. Codman Academy has never been just about getting kids through high school and sending them off to college. It concerns itself with its students’ whole lives: inside and outside of school, before and after graduation. Students here learn not just to ace tests, but to be leaders and value service, too. Their relationship with the school continues beyond graduation, with counselors who visit them at college and events that have alumni returning to join graduation processions and receive awards.

“When they graduate from Codman, we’re just getting started,” said Meg Campbell, the school’s founder, who is also a member of the Boston School Committee. “The culture is very strong here, and the alumni are stewards of it.”

The charter school, attached to the health center at the heart of this neighborhood, is about building a community. And what better way to build it than with these young people, who could do anything, but chose to come back to the place that formed them?

It is not unusual to see this at schools like BC High or Malden Catholic, where students connect with the school for life. It is far rarer to see this kind of thing in a public school in a poor neighborhood — where the power of such connections is most sorely needed.

“What better way to form a pipeline of strong, diverse faculty than to build our own?” Campbell said. She is convinced that each year will bring more alumni back to the school.

They will make students sweat the way they did. Bonilla will demand, as her teachers did of her, that students re-do presentations because they were merely good, not great. Head of discipline and National Guard member Sebastien Louis will push kids as he was pushed, into doing things he never thought he could do: public speaking and “Twelfth Night.” Brewster will give kids grit, the gift his teachers gave him.

And the kids will learn those lessons, because some of their teachers know their struggles and the good one school can do.

“I came from the same place they came from,” Brewster said. “You can still be successful.”

The first day of school is so close at Codman you can almost hear pencils scratching paper.

It’s enough to make you long for fall.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com.
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