The North Bennet Street School at the beginning of the 20th Century. Credit: Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe
An appreciation for fine craftsmanship has long been a part of the North End’s character, stretching back to the days of Paul Revere, arguably the neighborhood’s most famous silversmith. These days, though the Revolutionary War has long since ended and the North End itself has undergone countless transformations, a commitment to artisanal skills remains in the form of the North Bennet Street School.
The school, founded in 1885 as a trade school targeted specifically towards the immigrant communities that made the North End their home throughout the nineteenth century, continues its mission today through both professional programs and continuing education classes. The school has changed since its inception – disciplines as diverse as bookbinding, violin making, and preservation carpentry were added in the 1980s – but now something retro is going on, too: the return of youth programming and partnerships with middle schools in the Boston Public school district, hearkening back to the school’s beginning. Now, the North Bennet Street School is more embedded within the North End than ever before.
What happened to the youth programming in the years prior? During the 1970s and 80s, President Miguel Gómez-Ibáñez explains, the school retreated inward, abandoning the social service programs it had previously offered to the North End community, like settlement programs for recent immigrants and “Caddy Camps” for city boys to earn tips as summertime golf caddies in the suburbs, due to consolidations in funding. The school transformed itself into one with a national focus, its students aged (today, the average student age is 30 years old), and its interactions with the North End dwindled.
“In the last four to five years,” though, Gómez-Ibáñez says, “we’ve refocused on the North End.” Why? Gómez-Ibáñez, himself a graduate of the school, laughs a little when he considers what possibly could have prompted the renewed focus. “Maybe it’s the yuppie part of the North End…It’s much more of a place for kids.”
The school partnered with John Eliot K-8 in the North End to offer woodworking classes to Eliot School’s sixth, seventh, and eighth grades and the program, says Gómez-Ibáñez, has proven to be so popular with parents and students alike that it has also expanded to Clarence R. Edwards Middle School in Charleston and St. John School in the North End. It’s a new twist on the same old impetus behind the North Bennet Street School’s founding: “hand skills” and crafts are as valid, and necessary, as the more theoretical aspects of a child’s education.
“It’s just a more welcoming, a much more modern school,” is how Gómez-Ibáñez describes the North Bennet Street School of 2014. In addition to the renewed middle school programming, the school also opened a new building, also in the North End, in 2013, replacing an older facility that the school had outgrown. “We’re always looking at changes.”
One thing hasn’t changed: the North End’s continuous legacy of craftsmanship in America.