Heritage at heart
Each day, young students walk down the hallways of Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy and pass by the still gaze of portraits of Thurgood Marshall, Marcus Garvey, Shirley Chisolm, President Barack Obama and other leaders of color, leaders the academy hopes students will be inspired by and will seek to become.
But students don’t need to look on the wall to find an inspiring mentor. Just past the front office can be found the desk of Arturo Forrest ’06, executive director of Davis. As a leader, adviser, educator and friend, Forrest is forging new territory with his work at Davis, creating change for his students.
“Our mission is to be an extension of our community and be a place where families can have a voice,” he said. “In every aspect of this school, from how we develop curriculum to our policies — everything that makes up our foundation — we ask if it’s in the best interest of the community that we serve.”
Davis Leadership Academy is a tuition-free charter public school in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, with an enrollment of more than 200 students in sixth, seventh and eighth grades. More than 90 percent of the Davis student population is Black or
Latino, and students come from nearby or underrepresented communities.
Since its founding in 2003, Davis has become an innovator in culture-based education, a philosophy where student learning is grounded on the values, norms, heritage, language and real-world experiences of a particular community. For example, to encourage real-world connections for its students, Davis hosts an annual debate series on the death penalty and incarceration with the local district attorney’s office.
“When the playing field is equal, even if you are a student that comes from a low socioeconomic background, the research shows the results are similar to their counterparts that may have had a head start,” Forrest said.
Forrest began his career with an internship at a small charter school in Boston after graduating from UD. He earned his master’s degree in education at Simmons University and earned a professional development certificate from Harvard University. Forrest was hired at Davis in 2017 as the principal; he was named executive director this summer. In this role, he reports to the school’s board of directors, manages the campus day-to-day operations, and helps administer academic programs and evaluate curriculum.
He has a passion for serving students, a calling he said blossomed at UD. Each Friday after class, he and several of his Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity brothers volunteered as mentors at the West Dayton Boys and Girls Club after-school program.
“I was the community service chair, so I would always make sure we were locked into service,” Forrest said. “We were very dedicated to it, and that was one of the things that built the foundation for me to work with students.”
He met his wife-to-be, Erica Zanders Forrest ’07, also an educator, at UD when she was a campus leader of an organization he joined.
Forrest explained that all of Davis’ academic methods cater to students’ families and are a reflection of the students’ communities. For example, college readiness programs are educating students about historically Black colleges and universities through events like homecoming and its annual Black History Showdown.
“We’re not only promoting HBCU awareness but empowerment and knowing your history, tying us back to the mission of Davis,” Forrest said.
One of Davis’ most notable graduates is basketball player Bruce Brown, who plays for the Brooklyn Nets. Forrest also eagerly mentioned a former student of his at Davis, Donnell Keyes, now a junior at UD majoring in digital marketing.
Davis alumni have attended Spellman University, Xavier University of Louisiana and Morgan State University, among other
HBCUs. More than 95 percent of the school’s staff identify as people of color, and most have degrees from HBCUs.
“We’re also intentional about the teachers we hire, that they have an HBCU background,” he said.
Davis works with
HBCUs that instruct teacher education majors in culturally responsive practices.
A 2016 study by two New York University researchers showed students of color believe teachers of the same race hold them to higher expectations or that teachers of color are more culturally sensitive than their white counterparts.
“Having a teacher who looks like them leads to a sense of comfort, which allows students to take more academic risk in the classroom,” he said. “We notice it’s easier for them to make mistakes, and they’re open to being corrected because our teachers have walked the same path.”
Davis also uses techniques of inclusivity that best serve communities of color, Forrest said, to promote high levels of engagement through cultural responsiveness. Even Davis’ dress code utilizes these techniques.
“Some schools believe that if a young Black woman wears an afro, that’s a uniform violation. But we ensure that these types of things are promoted as positive in our space,” he said. “We are not disrespecting the Black culture. Instead, we’re fitting it into the educational landscape.”
In 2019, a news story threw Davis into the national spotlight when a group of its students were on a field trip to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. During the trip, a Davis teacher and several students reported being racially profiled, harassed and insulted with racist and disparaging comments at the museum by its staff and other patrons.
The students spoke up, telling museum administrators what they had seen and heard. Though it was a difficult situation, Forrest said, in his eyes, it only justified the mission of the school.
“It’s something I’ll never forget. Our students were extremely hurt, but they responded as leaders,” he said. “They made it very clear that it wasn’t just about the experience they went through; they wanted to make sure it didn’t happen to any other schools like ours.”
The incident resulted in a public apology from the museum and an investigation by the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office. The museum agreed to commit $500,000 over three years to community engagement and diversity initiatives.
Moving forward, Forrest said he sees a very clear future for the growth of Davis: a high school. His goal as executive director is to have a place like Davis throughout students’ teenage years, guiding them to college.
“Many of our former students will tell you that they’ve never had an experience like they got here at Davis,” he said. “An important mission for me is that we have a high school because that’s the main feedback I get from families — they wish we had more time with their kids.”