There used to be $30,000 worth of musical instruments stored next to the auditorium of the Higginson/Lewis K–8 School in Roxbury. The stash included saxophones, trumpets, flutes, trombones, and clarinets—a closet-load of promise. They showed up in 2009, the same year the school was stitched together from the old Henry L. Higginson Elementary School, which now sits empty just up the street, and the George A. Lewis Middle School, a worn, 102-year-old building that the combined school came to occupy. The instruments were bought with a grant from the VH1 Save the Music Foundation, and they came with a pledge from the school district to hire a music teacher. This was fitting, given that one of the school’s namesakes, Henry Lee Higginson, was the founder of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
But that was four years ago. The Higginson/Lewis, a struggling school in a struggling neighborhood filled with kids from struggling families, never got its music teacher. And then most of the instruments disappeared. “At first I was worried they’d grown legs and walked out the door, stolen,” said one teacher. In fact, they’d been lent to another school for its band. Just a few trombones and clarinets remained, the brass fittings on their cases untouched and still as shiny as on the day they arrived.
Like many inner-city schools, the Higginson/Lewis has struggled even when good things happen to it. And good things don’t come along so often. The faded red-brick exterior is imposing and aloof. Inside, there are efforts at cheeriness: doors and trim painted a jaunty blue that has taken on a murky denim tinge, walls highlighted with inspirational quotes (“Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can. –Arthur Ashe”) painted a few years ago by volunteers from Bain Capital. But slogans can’t hide the sunless hallways, or the clocks that all run an hour fast because fixing them would require a visit by an electrician from central offices who has never shown up. The windows don’t open, and there’s no air conditioning—on a hot day it can get to more than 100 degrees in the classrooms along the southeast side. Just blocks away, dealers sell drugs on Warren Street and prostitutes ply their trade along Blue Hill Avenue. When a shootout erupted last spring at the nearby Walgreens, the kids playing in the schoolyard heard the shots—before they were hustled inside and the school went into lockdown.