Fourteen-year-old Joshua Venter never had friends at school. Now he’s on the football team. Teachers say he’s popular.

For his dad, David Venter, it’s a beautiful turn in a difficult journey. Joshua has autism. When David brought 4-year-old Joshua home as a foster child, Joshua could only say a few words.

“Now I have to tell him to get off the phone at 11:30 at night. I can’t believe I have that particular problem,” he said. “I love it. He’s never had one single friend before now.”

David attributes Joshua’s success to his high school, the Urban Science Academy, or USA, in West Roxbury. But the good times may not last.

Mayor Marty Walsh’s administration wants to close the school to make way for a new building as part of a $1 billion school modernization plan. School officials say they intend to keep Joshua and 18 other students with autism together at a different high school. That would separate Joshua from the teachers and friends who have made him feel safe.

Finding A School
Before landing at USA, Joshua and David tried five traditional Boston public schools, one charter school and one parochial school. Joshua has ADHD and struggles with paying attention and staying organized, according to David, who adopted Joshua when he was 5. Guided by the notion that Joshua would learn most from interacting with typical children, David sought out schools where Joshua could take mainstream classes while receiving specialized support.

Even though many schools purported to offer this approach, David said it wasn’t the reality. At some schools, Joshua’s teachers didn’t read his Individual Education Plan, which describes his disability and required accommodations, according to David.

“I would receive calls all of the time for the littlest things,” he said. “I would ask, ‘Did you read Joshua’s IEP?’ And they hadn’t.”

Even though some schools provided a trained teacher to help with special education students, that teacher was shared among several classrooms, and Joshua didn’t get as much attention as David expected.

David also complains that teachers didn’t protect Joshua from bullying. Joshua was beaten up four times in class, David said.

Joshua Venter plays basketball with his father, David.
Meredith Nierman WGBH News

The Holy Grail
When Joshua started at USA, David had a hard time believing it was much different from the other schools he’d seen. Then, two weeks into his time at school, Joshua came home and had a request.

“I really want to play football,” Joshua said, according to his dad. David knew the benefits of sports for his son's social and physical development. Joshua couldn't hold a knife and fork, David said, until he started playing basketball around the age of 11 at the local Boys and Girls Club. But David didn't want Joshua to play a team sport at a new school.

“I was still getting to know them, and they were still getting to know Joshua,” David said about the staff at USA. He remembered how teachers at previous schools hadn’t read Joshua’s Individual Education Plan and worried that the coach and teammates would misunderstand Joshua’s behavior.

There was also the problem of transportation. As a special education student, Joshua receives door-to-door bus service to and from school. That wouldn’t be available after football practice, and Joshua couldn’t ride the city bus by himself.

The year before, David hired a specialist to try to teach Joshua to take the T, but said it wasn’t “successful.”

Still, Joshua begged, “Please let me do this.” His new friends were playing football.

David visited the football coach. The coach said, “We got this,” David recalled. “We’ll buddy him up and we’ll make sure that he gets home.”

David relented. And one day when the buddy wasn’t available, Joshua got home safely by himself.

“So it’s not just a school,” David said. “My son can ride the T.”

Here We Go Again
In October, Boston school officials announced a proposal to close Urban Science Academy and West Roxbury Academy, two high schools located in the West Roxbury Educational Complex, a 1970s-era behemoth surrounded by athletic fields in the leafy West Roxbury neighborhood.

Interim superintendent Laura Perille told reporters the district had neglected to maintain the building, which needed emergency repairs before it was safe to open this fall and would need more extensive repairs to remain viable for students. The district was proposing to close the schools in June, tear down the building and construct a new high school on the site. Students, she said, would be reassigned around the district.

Students, parents and teachers objected, packing the Boston School Committee meeting after the proposal was announced. Teachers and students accused officials of treating the school and its students as inferior to other high schools in the district.

David Venter testified too. He was furious.

“Really, how I felt was, ‘Here we go again. Another fight.’ I finally thought I could relax,” he said.

Joshua Venter.
Meredith Nierman WGBH News

USA has worked for Joshua because there’s a broader culture of acceptance, Joshua and David said.

“It’s the best school, because I feel safe there,” Joshua said. “This is the first school that’s accepted me for who I am.”

Joshua attends mainstream classes, along with special classes for about 20 students with autism to learn social and academic skills. He’s grouped in a cohort of ninth graders who attend mainstream classes together.

A specialized staff member goes along to provide extra help. It’s part of a program called Symphonize, created by teacher Allison Doherty nearly three years ago.

Boston Public School officials denied WGBH News' request to visit the program. “Given the emotional nature of the situation for students at Urban Science right now, we are not accommodating media visits to classrooms at the school," an official said.

Doherty, a longtime special education teacher, said she started the program because there wasn’t much support for students with autism who are on track to graduate. Most students in the program have passed the MCAS. Some are on the honor roll.

Doherty has four students on the football team, including Joshua. She attributes that to the football coach, who she said was willing to learn the diverse needs of her students and understand there might be “outbursts.”

Closing Time
The news that the students might change schools has hit them hard, Doherty said.

“A lot of these students haven’t had friends before,” Doherty said. “They all feel a sense of community and love and connection to all of the teachers here that they've had an acceptance.”

If the school closes, Doherty said, “I think they'd be very hurt and angry and discouraged. And when that happens, they don't want to do work.”

Doherty said she worries that moving the students without the larger community will set them back academically.

“We are so successful because of the community we have here,” Doherty said. “So if we go to another place and the community isn't the same, it's not going to be successful.”

In public meetings, school officials have said there isn’t space to move the entire community together, but have proposed moving students in the Symphonize program to the Jeremiah Burke High School.

“The district is committed to keeping special needs programming together,” Dan O'Brien, press secretary for the Boston Public Schools, said in an email. “BPS is continuing to work with West Roxbury Education Complex staff and the Boston Teachers Union on finalizing details of the transition.”

The School Committee is scheduled to vote Dec. 19 on the proposal to close the Urban Science Academy and West Roxbury Academy.

Our coverage of K through 12 education is made possible with support from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.