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St. Sebastian’s Headmaster has seen changes in gender and race in single-sex education

William Burke, who’s retiring as headmaster from St. Sebastian’s School in Needham after 34 years, has had a front row seat to the changes in gender and race in single-sex schools. As his granddaughter, and someone who attends an all-girls school, I was intrigued to hear his perspective on the changes at St. Sebastian’s School, an all-boys independent school that he has worked at since 1990. 

Burke has seen changes in how masculinity is defined over the decades. He said that his students are a lot more open than they used to be, that there isn’t as much of a “tough guy” image. He highlighted the openness and freedom from students now that they feel safe to talk about their feelings, as masculinity has previously been about having thick skin. For example, a student shared about his cousin’s suicide during a chapel speech and another student spoke about his sister’s death. In the past, a student may have been judged for sharing such a personal and sensitive topic. 

Another change has been how the school approaches race. He spoke about the MPA (Men with Positive Attitudes) group, founded in the 1990’s by a student working with the school psychologist. He said, “It’s a group that focuses mainly on the concerns and issues for people of color.” Burke said it’s not an affinity group, and that “plenty of kids from all races” join. The goal is for students in this club to learn and empathize with people that live a different life from theirs. He said, “It’s very important to hear people’s stories.” 

The MPA doesn’t benefit only students and faculty, but him as well. After George Floyd’s murder, they had listening sessions with families of color and offered support. “I learned a lot from the parents and from the faculty members who are black.” Even after 34 years, he said, “I didn’t know that every time one of my black faculty members goes into a store in Boston he gets trailed.” 

Burke has received only positive feedback about the MPA. “I’m told that at many independent schools the black families don’t feel they are part of it because it’s kind of a white world, and that’s not the way our people [at St. Sebastian’s] feel.”

After retirement, he plans to keep up with the St. Sebastian’s community and travel with my grandmother. 

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