On Friday, the Parent Imperfect received a number of messages from people who had received their exam school assignment letters from the Boston Public Schools. Their children had taken a private school admissions test that does not correspond to the BPS curriculum, and based on those test results and their grades in Grades 5 & 6, they were offered admission to one of the city’s exam schools.
Being who I am, I tend to hear from people who chose the nation’s oldest public school for their sixth grader, and got their first choice. Their doubts about this choice are returning and they are wondering if they can still opt for their child to go to one of the other exam schools. They want me to say that BLS will be fine for their child…as if I know.
This year, one of the most common questions came from people (four…this is not a huge sample size) who had chosen BLA as their first choice, but had actually received their second choice…Boston Latin School. One wanted to know if I thought that the BPS had just put her child into BLS because of her high score, regardless of their first choice, and the other three asked what I thought they should do, given that they had already decided that they didn’t want their child (boys, in each of these cases) to go to the nation’s oldest.
Since BLA accepts fewer students for seventh grade (about 150 fewer, I think), it is not hard to figure out how this happens. Susie’s test scores and grades mean that she is ranked #340 for BLA, but that school is only accepting 332 children this year (these are made-up numbers). Susie, unfortunately, doesn’t get into BLA. The computer then goes to Susie’s second choice, BLS. It turns out that, at that point in the process, BLS has only filled 469 of the 534 spots it has for this year, so Susie becomes the 470th student assigned to BLS. She is admitted to BLS (her second choice) when some students ranked lower than Susie, who made BLS their first choice, won’t get it. Susie’s parents then have a decision to make.
I’m sure that this has always happened, but I’m going to go out on a limb (with no data other than my own anecdotes) and say that more students with relatively high test scores and grades are making BLA or the O’Bryant their first choice each year. Gradually, this idea that BLS is “the only high school worth going to in the city” is going away. This is a very good change. There are still people who start choosing among private schools if their child doesn’t get into BLS, but I sense that the number of these folks is dwindling. I believe that more of the higher scoring students (not to be confused with “better” students) are still making BLS their first choice, and, eventually, attending that school, but the numbers are changing. “Sumus primi” remains the BLS motto, but that doesn’t mean what it once did.
If this shift is, indeed, taking place, it means something different for each school. For BLS, it would mean more academic diversity in the school (not necessarily more of any other sort of diversity). There may actually be more students at the school who have a hard time adapting to the academic expectations and social pressures of the school. The systems that exist at the school to support these students (peer tutoring, Saturday Success School, extra help from teachers, etc.) will be under increasing stress to meet increasing demand.
So what should Susie’s parents do? They went through this painstaking process of looking at the schools and deciding that BLA, as a more diverse school with a noticeably more supportive culture for students not in the top 25% of their class, was best for Susie. Now, her assignment for 7th grade is the nation’s oldest.
I don’t know what Susie’s parents should do, but there are a few things that I do that may affect such a decision:
1. Each of the three exam schools has much to recommend it. Parents have carefully ranked their preferences among the schools, based on their sense of the kind of environment that will work best for their child. That said, a lot of students who don’t get their first choice do quite well in the school to which they are assigned. I always suggest that people look closely at the school where their child has been placed, before assuming that a non-BPS alternative is the only option.
2. How one places in the exam school derby is not predictive of how they will do in any particular school environment. Our two children were not all that different in terms of test scores or elementary school grades, but their experiences at BLS have been totally different. The organizational skills, personality and learning style of the child seem to be much more predictive of success at BLS than where one places on the exam sorting list. Gender also matters, as I continue to be told that boys are the most challenged demographic group at the school, in terms of academics. This means, for example, that Latinos as a group (a quite small group) fare better at the school than do boys (a quite large group).
3. BLS changes a bit each year, but remains a place that works better for some types of students than others. Just last night, a mother wrote into the BLS Village list-serv to address the question of too much homework. Her son, a ninth grader gets fine grades at the school, while spending 1-2 hours on homework each night. She doesn’t say this, but he is apparently quite happy at the school. Others talk about children who are spending 4-6 hours per day on homework and routinely staying up past 11PM to complete their assignments. This puts an incredible strain on the child (and the family) at a time when the transition to adolescence is putting its own strains on them. We have lived both stories in our own household, and would not wish the strain and conflict on anyone. There have been important changes during the time we have been at BLS in how the school deals with students who struggle with the academic transition. I would not, however, begin to say that the school does everything possible to make it possible for every student to be successful. For example, after a lot of work by a community-wide task force, BLS adopted a “homework policy” mandating that students be assigned roughly 30 minutes of homework in each subject, each evening. There should be no homework over school vacations. Perhaps responding to curricular pressures, teachers routinely violate this policy, and there seems to be no way to hold them accountable to this or any other policy–regular information on student progress, for example–that might help struggling students.
4. Diversity matters and some schools better reflect the diversity of the BPS than others. We believe that economically and socially diverse schools better prepare students, including ours, to be good citizens in the very divided society that they are likely to live in. Of all BPS high schools, the O’Bryant more closely reflects the racial and ethnic diversity of the BPS student body than any other school. BLA is less diverse, in this sense, but is still among the more diverse schools in an increasingly segregated set of high schools. BLS is simply off the charts in this regard. Because the student body of the school is so heavily Caucasian and Asian (two groups that, together, make up much less than 25% of the system’s students) BLS is, by quite a bit, the least diverse of the schools in the system. The BPS no longer collects good information about the socioeconomic circumstances of its students, but, based on older information, there is little doubt that BLS is an outlier in this regard, as well. Our children certainly have African-American and Latino friends at BLS, as well as friends from different socioeconomic backgrounds, but their social lives immediately became dramatically less diverse spaces upon entering the BLS school environment. They are certainly not “bad’ kids as a result, but they are becoming different people. We knew that this would likely happen when we chose BLS for our children, so we must have decided that other factors were more important. What we thought less about was the fact that this change in the social lives of our children would also impact the social life of the entire family.
According to the BPS, over half of the students taking the ISEE exam get into their first choice school. That means that a lot of those families are still facing difficult choices about high school for their child. And then there are all of the students who didn’t opt to take the ISEE, in the first place. With their families, they face an even more daunting set of choices. We wish that everyone in the system was in the position of choosing among quality options, but that is certainly not the case.