Last weekend, hundreds of sixth and eighth-grade students in Boston took the Independent School Entrance Exam (ISEE). Some of these students took this test in hopes of getting into one of the area’s many private schools, but the majority were seeking placement in one of the exam schools within the Boston Public Schools. Performance on this test is one of two criteria for exam school acceptance. The other criteria is the student’s math and science grades in the the year-and-a-half prior to seeking admission (fifth grade and the first half of sixth for students taking the test in sixth grade). Why does a student’s grade on a private school admissions test have such an impact on middle school and high school placement in Boston’s public schools?
For many families, ISEE test day represents the far turn in the long process of getting a student accepted in either John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science, Boston Latin Academy or Boston Latin School. Some families have had this day in mind since the day their child began school, or before. These families tend to know the system well, and are very clear that they want their child to attend one of these exam schools. Many even know exactly which of the schools they want their child to attend.
Vince and Connie do not live in one of these families. They knew that this question about where Vince would be for sixth grade was a big one, but it turned out to be even bigger than they knew. They had a strong sense that the quality of the program at the Rafael Hernández School began to decline pretty dramatically after fifth grade, so they probably wouldn’t leave Vince there after sixth grade, but they were not all together on what to do after that.
Vince had no idea about exam schools until the latter part of fifth grade, when one of his best friends told him that he was leaving the Rafael Hernández School to attend the sixth grade Advanced Work Class at a nearby school. Vince had also been invited to Advanced Work for sixth grade, but Liz and the PI had decided to leave him at the RHS for at least another year. Continuity at the only school he had even known seemed like a good idea for him, and they weren’t quite ready to have their two children in different schools.
Vince’s friend wasn’t anxious to leave RHS, either, but his parents really felt that it was better for him to try something else for sixth grade. Around that time, that same friend and a couple of others also started to talk to Vince about taking the test to get into Boston Latin. Vince showed little interest at first, as the exam schools were simply not on the screen of most of his classmates at RHS. The Exam School Choice was, however on the mind of the Parent Imperfect. As fifth grade progressed, he began to raise this same subject with Vince, who was not immediately inclined to take any extra test for any reason. But the combination of his friends saying what a cool place BLS was, and his father saying that he should think of taking this test “just to have the option to go if he decided he wanted to” convinced Vince that he ought to give it a try. There was clearly a fear of being “left behind” in his change of heart.
Late that spring, Vince received an invitation to an ISEE preparation course being funded by the Boston Latin School Association (BLSA) for BPS students interested in the exam schools. BLSA’s idea was to increase the percentage of BPS students gaining entrance to Boston Latin and the other exam schools. The course would take place every morning for three weeks in July. To the PI’s surprise, after talking to his friends at school, Vince said that he wanted to take this preparation course in combination with afternoon sailing classes offered on Jamaica Pond by the Courageous Sailing program. Momentum for the Exam School Choice was building faster than any of them knew.
The PI was still talking about Vince taking the test to “keep his options open,” but, in truth, the same chatter that had gotten Vince interested in BLS was also happening among parents, and it had affected the PI. By the time Vince started getting up early to make his way to BLS on a series of summer mornings, the PI had at least begun to believe that going to a school like BLS–where he would be surrounded by students focused on learning–would transform Vince into an engaged student, excited about learning. Liz felt differently from the start. She was fine with Vince taking the test to keep his options open, but she was more skeptical about the talk about the virtues of the nation’s oldest public school.
Vince and a couple of his friends from RHS took the summer prep course, followed by Courageous Sailing on Jamaica Pond. The combination worked very well. Being at BLS each morning wasn’t easy and it was, after all, school. But time in that building increased his excitement about the possibility of going there, and the experience of he and his friend making their own way to sailing afterwords gave him a sense of independence that he was really ready for. The positive feedback he got from his teachers at the summer program helped him believe that he could, in fact, get into the school that suddenly seemed the place to be. What had been a strange idea a few months before had become a pretty exciting possibility.