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THE GREAT DIVIDE

In Woburn, a diversifying school district works to become more welcoming

Kafui Kemeh, a senior at Woburn Memorial High School. Since her family moved to the city in the late 1990s, Woburn’s Black student enrollment has more than doubled, reflecting a demographic shift here and across the country toward Black suburbanization.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

In elementary school in Woburn, Kafui Kemeh was usually the only Black student in her class. At best, it was isolating; at worst, she faced overt racism, other kids sometimes pelting her with racial slurs.

But as Woburn, like many other largely white suburbs, has become more diverse over the last 20 years, Kemeh has seen small but meaningful changes. Teachers used to call her KK, but now everyone makes the effort to learn how to pronounce her name (KuhFWEE). She hears less racist language. And Kemeh now has a Black principal at Woburn Memorial High School, where she is a senior.

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“He used to be a teacher at the school, then assistant principal, then the principal,” Kemeh said. “That evolution, where you’re seeing changes in the school and the district, it’s really refreshing to see, and I would’ve never anticipated and expected it.”

Since Kemeh’s family arrived in the late 1990s, Woburn’s Black student enrollment has more than doubled, reflecting a demographic shift in Woburn and across the country, as more Black families settle in suburbs. Some are leaving big cities like Boston in search of better schools and more affordable home prices; others are immigrants or newly arrived from other states.

Woburn, like many diversifying suburbs, is working to become more welcoming for Black students by changing its curriculum, retraining existing staff, and recruiting more diverse new staff.

In another era, Kafui’s father, Michael Kemeh, an immigrant from Ghana, might have settled in Boston. He moved to Massachusetts from Kansas for a job at Lesley University in Cambridge in 1997, chose a community the same way many newcomers do — by tapping his personal network. A Black friend from work invited the family to split a duplex he owns in Woburn, and they’ve lived in the small city of 40,000 ever since.

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Kafui’s father appreciates the city’s walkability and its Horn Pond Conservation Area; he also loves the schools, where Kafui and her older sister, now a pre-med student at Boston University, have thrived.

But his daughter’s feelings about Woburn are complicated. Kafui Kemeh said she had a “great connection” with her primary school principals, and with many teachers and classmates. She still volunteers at the second primary school she attended.

But even in friendly spaces, she felt acutely conscious that she was different. The only Black teacher she ever had was a substitute. She longed for classrooms like those her African friends from church enjoyed in Lynn, Malden, and Roxbury.

“Everyone in Woburn really have good hearts, and they’re really great people,” she said. “But I tend to be the only Black girl in the friend group.”

Occasionally, schoolyard bickering exposed overt racism. In middle school, after a falling out, a friend called her a monkey on Instagram. Even now, in high school, she sometimes hears white students carelessly throwing around racial slurs — calling each other the n-word, or using it when singing along to hip-hop music, she said.

As she came of age, Kemeh said, she found it hard to shake the sense that, in this community, she had to represent all Black people. She felt white classmates expected her to offer “the person-of-color perspective.”

As the community around her has changed, she has become more connected at school. She has mentored freshman students and is a leader in multiple clubs, including Woburn embRACE, a diversity, equity, and inclusion club that Steven Martin, who is now the interim principal, founded when he was a teacher. The club has organized and participated in gun violence vigils and community service, as well as Woburn’s first two Juneteenth celebrations.

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“There’s a strong group of people who really want to be inclusive and support different events that support that,” said Phil Gordon, deputy director of Social Capital Inc., a Woburn nonprofit, who is also Black.

The Juneteenth festivities in Woburn are emblematic of a shift in the city since the murder of George Floyd, and the nationwide protests that followed. Woburn schools embraced diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts with renewed commitment in the summer of 2020, said Martin. Plans to offer diversity and inclusion training for staff and to recruit more teachers of color were put into action, he said.

Martin has noticed a marked change among students, too; students of color and LGBTQ students seem more willing to participate in discussions.

“We’ve evolved,” he said.

For much of Martin’s time with the district, he has been one of just two Black staff members out of nearly 600. Change has been slow — the district now has five Black employees, still less than 1 percent of the staff, while 8 percent of students are Black.

The diversification of white suburbs in Greater Boston has yielded some ugly politics, including racist graffiti targeting Black school administrators.

Woburn has had its own troubles: Police officer John Donnelly resigned in October amid allegations he participated in and helped plan the violent 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va. But Martin was not aware of any backlash in the district to recent equity efforts.

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“Just because the summer of 2020 has passed does not mean that the country is where it needs to be,” Martin said. “The students are coming, and we have to welcome the students.”

Kemeh though, plans to head to a major city for college, where she hopes to study psychology. She can’t wait to be surrounded by “international students . . . and people from all different walks of life.”

Maybe it will be Boston, so she can still stay close to Woburn: “I think it’s a perfect fit,” she said. “Not going too far.”

The Great Divide team explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and send ideas and tips to thegreatdivide@globe.com.


Christopher Huffaker can be reached at christopher.huffaker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @huffakingit.