Opening Boston Latin: More than just turning the key…

BLS TeachersA lot has happened since the Parent Imperfect first wrote about the turmoil at the nation’s oldest public school. In the local and national media, much ink has been spilled concerning the efforts of a student group called BLS B.L.A.C.K. to bring to light the racial climate at the school, and to compel school leadership to address the situation in a comprehensive way. This is only the latest chapter in a long history of attempts at Opening Boston Latin.

You may remember that my introduction to all of this came when dear Connie found herself in the middle of the social media storm that followed the release of the first #BlackatBLS video. It was her decision to dress in black the next school day that got my attention. This was only fitting, as the way students interacted on social media in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO was one important spark to the entire discussion.

BLS Black at School CommitteeThe next kick the the backside (or stomach) for me came at the very first Boston School Committee meeting after the video came out. I was not there, but friends from QUEST were, and they made sure I knew what had happened. The two young women who had put out the video sat before the Committee and told their story. When a committee member asked what sort of support they had gotten from parents at the school, Meggie and Kylie looked at each other in a “that’s a good question” kind of way and then one of them said that they hadn’t really gotten any support from parents yet. Ow!

Soon thereafter, the Headmaster announced an “action plan” to address the issues raised by the students. A parent group, Parents Promoting Equity & Diversity, was formed to support the students in BLS B.L.A.C.K., and press the school leadership to aggressively move to address student concerns. Dozens of meetings have taken place, inside and outside of the school. At the request of local organizations including the NAACP’s Boston branch, a Federal prosecutor launched a probe of allegations of possible mishandling of civil rights violations at the school. Meggie and Kylie have been accepted into great universities and have graduated from the school with over 400 classmates. Most recently, the two core leaders of the school (the Headmaster and her longest-serving Assistant Headmaster) shocked the school community by submitting their BLS protestresignations. The school year ended with angry teachers and parents (along with a few students) confronting the Mayor and Superintendent of Schools in front of the media on the steps of BLS, demanding that officials refuse to accept the much-publicized resignations.

Whew! I’m sure Boston Latin School has had many wild years in the 381 that have passed since its establishment, but I doubt many of them were more wild than this one.

All of that turbulent water under the bridge is extremely interesting and worthy of analysis, but, in the end, it is water under the bridge. What is important now is the way forward for the school, and the troubled school district in which it sits.

chang appointsSuperintendent Tommy Chang acted quickly to appoint interim administrators to take the reins while he conducted a national search for a new headmaster. Those tapped include two retired former BPS headmasters, Michael Contompasis and Jerry Howland, and Alexandra Montes McNeil, a former BLS faculty member and a member of the BPS leadership team. Contompasis will be interim Headmaster, Howland his second in command and Montes Mcneil will be “Instructional Superintendent,” which I think is a new position at the school. The appointment of Contompasis, a former BLS headmaster and a fixture in the city’s educational elite, was clearly designed to calm fears that the District was planning wholesale changes at the school. Taken together, the appointments have “assure stability” written all over them, and seem to have diminished the state of panic among supporters of the former headmaster.

The fly in the stability ointment is, of course, the ongoing Federal probe. At some point, this investigation will draw to a close, and its conclusions could thrust the school community right back into crisis mode. The Feds could conclude that local authorities properly addressed issues at the school, thus bringing the investigation to a close without either recommendations for the District or any legal action against individuals. That is, perhaps, the likely outcome at the point, but Carmen Ortiz, the prosecutor in charge of the probe, is not known for investigations quietly closed. The appointment of interim leadership may present an air of stability, but it does not remove the cloud of uncertainty hanging over the school.

ContompasisPeople familiar with Contompasis’ history at BLS suggest that he was sensitive to the needs of students of color and supported efforts to diversify both the student body and the teaching force at the school. That sounds great, but the new/former headmaster, in an interview to WBUR soon after the release of the BLS B.L.A.C.K. video seems to be dissing the student perspective. I’ll wait to see what the man actually does over the summer and when the bell rings in September.

The transition in school leadership leaves a lot of unfinished business at BLS. Many people associated with the school would like to see the issues raised by BLS B.L.A.C.K. just quietly drop off the agenda so that things can just get back to “normal.” Regardless of what the Federal investigators conclude, that “normal” is a thing of the past.

The interim leadership of BLS will be under pressure to continue efforts to address the racial climate at the school. At a minimum, this will include: (1) finding ways to encourage and facilitate courageous community conversations about race; (2) educating all members of the community around racism and racial dynamics;  and (3) establishing and following clear protocols for the safe reporting and prompt addressing of  allegations of racially motivated incidents at the school.

BLS UnbindsIn addition to supporting and providing leadership to this effort, District leaders will need to find ways to address, in a real way, the closely-related issue of the composition of the school community. This includes the student body and the teaching force, as well as school staff and administration. According to the profile of BLS prepared by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, African-American and Hispanic students make up 74% of the students in the BPS, but compose less than 21% of enrollment at Boston Latin. In the long run, it will be very difficult to address the racial climate at the school if the composition of the school remains so out of whack with the overall BPS student body. As many have pointed out, the problem of shifting enrollment at Boston Latin reflects a national trend toward the “resegregation” of public education across the U.S, but that doesn’t give BLS any kind of “pass” around diversity.

The Boston Globe recently reported that the District is considering ways to change to racial composition of the school. Even the mention of such efforts inflames passions in the city like few other issues. Boston Latin is, after all, the crown jewel of public education in the city, and access to it is seen by many as a key to economic and social success in Boston.

Opening Boston Latin has been attempted in the past (most recently in the 1990s, with some success) and the effort met the determined opposition of a group of parents at the school and others in the community. In the end, Federal court decisions convinced the District that  its plan to diversify BLS could not be defended legally, and the BPS threw in the towel. While that may have been the right decision in the moment, it certainly helped bring the school to where it is today.

The one concrete step that is always mentioned in this “new” discussion of Opening Boston Latin is an expansion of programs to prepare students for the test used to award entrance to Boston’s exam schools. I’m not against this idea, but it is not going to solve the problem of access to the school.

I hope four additional ideas are also under discussion  to address this issue. I’ll only mention them here, with the promise to discuss each more deeply in the future.

  1. Design and implement a sophisticated, long-term  communications campaign to promote the exam school option to all BPS students and families, beginning in first grade. The current Exam School Initiative is nice, but not up to the task.
  2. Scrap the ISEE as the BPS exam school test in favor of an test that more closely reflects the K-6 curriculum in use in the Boston Public Schools.
  3. Redesign the formula to award entry to exam schools to incorporate a numerical preference for students who have attended the BPS in fourth, fifth and sixth grades.
  4. Redesign that same formula to incorporate a numerical preference for students eligible, due to family income, for subsidized or free school lunch, according to Federal guidelines.

BLS statueEach of these is a complex step that would face predictable and surprising opposition, but no effort to seriously change the way students access BLS will be welcomed by everyone. Legal action against Steps 3 and 4 would be threatened immediately, and the threat would be quite serious. While I don’t believe that any of these steps could be attacked successfully for promoting “racial quotas,” each would contribute to a shift in the composition of BLS.

Combined with the difficult internal work necessary to make the school a place that all parents in the District want their children to attend, these steps could make a difference. The steps would be costly, in both economic and political terms, but we should be willing to pay those costs. Opening Boston Latin offers the classic “twofer.” To do so would make a great school and a great city even greater,  and it would also address one of the most influential sources of the “achievement gap” in the Boston Public Schools. What’s not to like?

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16 Comments

Filed under Boston Public Schools, Exam Schools

16 responses to “Opening Boston Latin: More than just turning the key…

  1. Laura Dowd

    Thanks for the overview of events and issues. I would like to understand better what was in the “action plan” proposed earlier in the school year. Was this plan the focus of discussion by the new parent group that was formed? Will anything started at the school this year — by administration/ faculty or parents — provide a basis for continued efforts next year?

    • Thanks, Laura. The action plan was one area of focus of PPED, but not the only one. PPED had a meeting scheduled with the Superintendent and the Headmaster to discuss the action plan one week before the Haedmaster’s resignation. That meeting was cancelled by the Super and re-scheduled as an “open” community meeting. The morning of that scheduled meeting, Lynne tendered her resignation. The Super cancelled the meeting again, and it has not been re-scheduled. I will get you a copy of the actual plan, and I’ll ask if PPED’s comments on it can be shared. No one knows what will happen next, but one would hope that the new Headmaster would continue to refine and implement the action plan or something like it.

  2. Cdogg

    Ideas 2,3,4 is basically reintroducing segregation. Racists in the past tried to segregate education and that was knocked down by the courts. BLS is a diverse school as it is. Option 1 is good so everyone knows. What about adding another exam school.

    • Wow…that’s an interesting response! I hope you’ll say more about how these ideas would re-introduce segregation. I don’t think so, but I’ve certainly been wrong before. That would be the last thing I’d hope for. Adding another exam school? I don’t know if we need another one, but please say how that would help.

  3. Christine Poff

    I like the plan adopted in Texas (under George W, no less!) that offers admission to U.T. Austin, the state’s flagship university, to the top 10% of every high school. The assumption is that those students know how to work hard and aspire to high academic achievement, even if they have not had the benefit of SAT test prep, etc. Research shows this is the recipe for success, not a high test score. I’d like to see the top 10% of 6th graders (who have been in BPS for 4, 5, 6th grade) offered BLS admission. I’m not sure numerically how many students this criteria represents, but it would certainly change the diversity stats at Latin – both in terms of race and financial privilege.

  4. Thanks, Christine. That’s a good idea. I also like the Texas system, but is there a good way to determine who is in the top 10% of Boston’s elementary schools? That would probably be a combination of a test and grades, which would bring us right back to where we are. And what happens to the people who live in Boston, but aren’t in a BPS school? Are they just out of luck? That approach would have immediate legal problems. This is not a simple problem with a simple solution, I fear.

  5. Fulano Z. Perencejo

    The epithet “Opening Boston Latin” takes quite a lot for granted. The young ladies who brought their discomfort to such lengths did not find the school closed to them; they just felt disrespected. No balanced argument could proceed from such heavy assumptions. What would be a comparably loaded title for the opposing view? Stop Tokenism?
    One should remember that BLS is a majority-minority school in a majority white city. Nobody is fighting to preserve this mythical closed door; the school is open to all who qualify and wish to go right now. This, of course, suggests two problems: qualifying, and wishing to go. Most would agree that it would serve the public interest in Boston to have more black students do both.
    The discomfort experienced by black students at BLS is undoubtedly exacerbated by their relatively small numbers there (especially in contrast with the marked lack of diversity of Boston’s elementary schools, which may have felt more comfortable for them). One should remember, though, that student preference is a factor in this under-representation: the application, acceptance, and attendance numbers suggest that a majority of black exam school applicants do not list BLS as their first choice.
    Most would agree with you that a sort of PR campaign will be needed to address the student preference problem, in addition to efforts based at the school itself to improve the racial climate. However, most likely disagree with you about machinations to restack the entrance deck, with quotas per school or for poor people.
    I think it is a particularly bad idea to abandon a third-party test administered on a national basis (the ISEE) in favor of a BPS home-brew test. The BPS cannot be trusted to be objective in its creation or administration; it would be a cheating scandal waiting to happen.
    I love the idea of a school quota system, but for what you may think the wrong reasons. First, it would require ranking of students, both within and between schools. This would be heart-breaking for some students and encouraging to others, but it would enhance school comparison data. Second, it would tend to lead to desegregation of Boston’s terribly segregated elementary schools, as parents intentionally moved their kids into “worse” schools to try to game the quotas. And, of course, ensuring that some students went to BLS from every school every year would help bring it into the consciousness of all BPS students.
    One idea I would add to the basket is ending the city’s mixed bag of K-5 and K-8 schools and making all BPS elementary schools K-6. That alone would increase admissions to BLS from BPS schools, and affect the racial balance. Many parents and students have the exam schools in their consciousness years in advance, whereas others may learn too late. If all BPS students changed school in seventh grade, more would end up at exam schools.

  6. Hmmmm…”Fulano Z. Perencejo”…what an interesting name. Perhaps you know my good friend, Fulano de Tal. Might you befrom the Tennessee branch of the Perencejo clan?

    I can’t help but wonder which of the people I knew in El Salvador is writing this comment, and if this is a “devil’s advocate” post to get me to address certain questions. I thank you for the comment,, devil’s advocate, or not.

    No matter. I’ll take the bait and say a couple of things.

    According to the last census, for the first time since this land has been called, “Boston,” the city is not majority white. It would be more accurate to say that, “BLS is a majority white and Asian school in a city where whites and Asians make up the majority of the population,” but this is not the point. The relevant yardstick by which to assess the composition of any BPS school is the population of public school students in the city. It is fair to say that the exam school composition should be judged against the composition of students in Grades 7-12 in the system, and I am trying to get good numbers on that segment of the population.

    The students who made the video were talking about the racial climate at BLS and inadequacy of the school administration’s efforts to address the issue. I’m saying that dealing with those issues is going to be very difficult until the composition of the school better reflects the BPS population. I expect different members of BLS B.L.A.C.K. feel differently about that idea, but that few would oppose changing the composition of the school. You’re right, my title does make an assumption…I assume that the school is “closed” to certain students in the system, and that it is possible to “open” the school to those students. I stand firmly behind that assumption.

    Like you, I don’t want a “BPS home-brew test.” I have only said that the test used for exam school admission should be based on something like the BPS curriculum. This can be accomplished in many ways. The current system gives a significant advantage to those who (1) have attended a private school and/or (2) come from families who can pay for specialized private test prep. Full disclosure: we paid for Pat Bench tutoring for Vince and that prep was a factor is his ability to get into BLS.

    As I said in an earlier comment, I don’t support a school quota system for the BPS. I think you are wrong about how such a system would work. Under the UT model, the top 10% (or some other percent) of graduating sixth graders in each BPS school would gain entrance to an exam school. There would need to be some mechanism to sort the students among the three schools (choice might not fill all the schools, and might overfill one of them), but there would be no need to compare schools. Such a system might change a bit the way parents choose schools, and it would probably change the composition of BLS (and the other exam schools, depending on the percentage of students from each school that gained entry), but I fear that it would cause more problems than it would solve. And what about the Holy Name and Academy of the Pacific Rim students who haven’t attended a BPS school?

    Tommy Chang agrees with you on the idea of more standardization in the grade configuration of BPS schools. This will happen, and while it will cause a lot of dislocation for families, in the long run I think it will help the system, provided that they really do it across the entire system. It will not, however, make a big difference in the problem we are discussing here.

    Again, thanks for putting out your own ideas about all of this. I hope others follow suit!

    • F.Z. Perencejo

      Hello, P.I. Thanks for your kind reply. No, I am not from the Tennessee Perencejo clan; Grandpa Mengano came up long before those Juancito-come-latelies. But now que has alimentado a la bestia, aqui voy.

      I think some of your assertions require corrections. For one, I have seen the last census done in Boston. The most recent five-year census average (2010-2014) reported that whites were 53.9% of the city’s population. That is a majority.

      There is a way people try to erase that, which is by holding that white people who are also Hispanic are thereby not white. That is insulting to the culture of a person who would choose to identify himself as both white and Hispanic. It is only through subtracting this group from one side, and adding it on the other, that one may reach the conclusion that Boston is a majority-minority city, so it is done for political convenience. This is the same kind of statistical trick as not counting Asians as minorities when it isn’t politically convenient. One could count as one wishes, and reach the conclusion that BLS is a majority white school in a minority white city, or the opposite.

      Boston will become a majority-nonwhite city soon enough, but it hasn’t yet. It will do so through increased immigration; immigration to our city is very high. This will bring major changes. For example, at one time, thirty years ago maybe, blacks were the majority of minorities in Boston. That is no longer the case; blacks are now a minority of minorities in Boston, and the only minority which is shrinking right now. By the time a non-white population becomes the majority of Boston, the majority of the black Bostonian population may be foreign born or the children of immigrants. That is a demographic change that will reach BLS, believe it.

      The second thing I’d like to disagree with you about is using participation in the BPS as a guide for expected percentages at BLS. Boston has an unusually high proportion of students – about a quarter of the total – not enrolled in BPS. This is one of the reasons our elementary schools are so segregated, and reflect the composition of the city at large so poorly.

      Refusing to count a full quarter of our city’s child population seems ridiculous and overtly biased. The proportion of Boston’s school-aged children who don’t go to BPS is higher than the proportion of Boston’s population that is black, after all. So if we want to talk about schools being Closed when large parts of our public don’t participate at them, maybe we should use that language, and talk about the BPS being Closed to such a large part of Boston’s population, and focus on that problem a little more.

      It’s this Closure and segregation of the BPS that results in the skewed BPS at large demographic you want to use as a baseline. BLS actually has a demographic closer to that of the city at large than does the BPS in general, because many find it more Open to them than BPS elementary schools, and return to the public system for it. A scheme to exclude such children has no more merit than a scheme to exclude other children would. We would do better to work on Opening the entire system, not just Closing the whole system equally. Let’s not pretend that there is a segregation problem only at BLS; there is a much greater segregation problem at BPS elementary schools. If we devise a purported solution to the former that exacerbates the latter, it will form a vicious circle.

      As for a quota system, when you propose moving away from criteria determined by students’ performance (such as the ISEE and grades, which students themselves achieve) to criteria based on students’ identity (such as racial identification, parental income, or elementary school attended), you are proposing a quota system, whether it be clear or fuzzy. Whether you say “we take the top X from each school” or “students get extra points in a complicated admissions algorithm,” it amounts to the same thing, with more or less obfuscation. As you point out, steps toward a hard or a soft quota would face legal challenge immediately, and probably gain a stay, considering legal history here. I would prefer not to employ any quota-type method, though some appeal to me more than others. The only real solution is to improve our elementary schools.

      One of the important questions to consider when we look at different hard or soft quotas is how they would function, in BPS’ highly segregated school environment, to combat the segregation that the BPS suffers from. If extra points in a complex algorithm are given to kids who attended any BPS elementary schools in grades 4-6, how will parents react? Who will benefit? Will it be kid number two at the Mattahunt and Orchard Gardens, or kid number twenty at Kilmer and in AWC at the Curley? Will the result be a push toward desegregation, as more parents with choices seek to place their kids in the more highly segregated schools, or even greater segregation, as an ever-higher proportion of kids from whiter schools flow to BLS, increasing those schools’ reputations and waiting lists? I think it would be the latter.

      My concerns in all this include remedying Boston’s school segregation problem, but also preserving or increasing the challenge of our exam schools for the most academically oriented students. I worry that placing increasing numbers of students who would not test into the schools based only on their abilities and achievements would create a requirement for remedial classes and a general dumbing-down and dilution of the value of a BLS degree.

      I don’t think Latin is challenging enough as it is, or presents a sufficient curriculum, and would like to see resources dedicated to bringing it up, rather than bringing it down. Why is it not more of a scandal that our premier exam school has NO science curriculum for eighth grade? Why are we not outraged that the math progress at BLS is so slow that many students – and almost all Beezies – will never study calculus, and thus will be ineligible for application to technical universities like MIT? I would like to see more focus on ensuring that the best public students in our city get what they need, and making the benefits to students of the top public school in our city comparable to the advantages private school students get. To do otherwise is to decide that only private money can buy academic excellence.

      • Kind reply??? Now, yours is what I call a comment. I don’t have time to respond right now (I’m supposed to have a job), but I will.

        I will say, though, that your comment about the population shows that any efforts to define races and ethnicities and attach numbers to those definitions leads one into dangerous territory. As you know the “white” race is a social construction, like all others. In the bizarre way our society defines “minorities,” this is a majority-minority city. But I insist that this is not the point, so I’ll leave the statistical bickering on that score to you.

  7. And then there is the tired question of what should be the yardstick in measuring diversity in Boston’s schools. At first you seem to be suggesting that the proper yardstick should be the city’s school age population. That’s an interesting idea, but why should be be assessing the composition of BLS or any other school by including the children of all the families who have made a conscious choice not to attend the BPS? It is important to understand why they have made that choice, and to figure out how to deliver the kind of quality education in BPS that will bring them back, but it’s honestly silly to include them in our approximation of the composition of the school system.

    But, in the end, you fall back to the really odd notion that Boston schools are adequately “diverse” if they reflect the composition of the city as a whole. I’m sorry, but I fail to see any logic in that one.

    What effect would my desired changes in the exam school formula have? Good question! No one can say for sure, but I think it is clear that the change regarding socio-economic status would “open” BLS to more kids from less-privileged economic backgrounds. There are a significant number of less-privileged students at BLS now, but the population still skews toward the shiny SUV set, compared to the system as a whole. This change would make the school more diverse in other ways, too.

    I honestly don’t know what effect the preference for BPS attendance would have. While the data is certainly available, it is very difficult to get access to the data regarding the percentage of BPS grads among current entering sixies and beezies (seventh and ninth grade entrants to the school). This percentage would increase, but would the increase be mostly kids previously outside of BPS who came in because of the preference? Would such an influx only increase segregation at BPS schools? I think it is reasonable to expect that some families would come back to the BPS because of the increased odds of getting into exam schools. To my mind, this would be a good thing, even though the “influx” would probably not be great. Other forces are pushing in the direction of segregation much more powerfully than any change in the exam school entrance formula.

    But your punch line comes at the end. You are afraid that any change in the current admission policy would lead to “dumbing down” at the alma mater. Sorry, but for this one I have no sympathy. Do you really believe that the kids who get into BLS under the current system are “smarter” than other kids in the system? If so, we differ more than I thought.

    • F.Z. Perencejo

      I have broken a taboo. I should address that first. In today’s meritocratic America, where intelligence is more important than it ever has been before, it is not permitted to speak of it.

      This is an American story: a boy comes home from school. He tells his dad that so-and-so got in trouble because he said the S word. Dad says, “Maybe it’s better not to say that word. Say ‘poo-poo.’ Or say ‘caca.'” The son says, no, not that S word. So-and-so said the other S word: stupid. Dad says “whaat?”

      This is not something we may say anymore, while at the same time it is an overriding preoccupation of most parents. We push our kids to prove they are smart, but we may not ever say so.

      We may enter a reductio ad absurdum on the theme of “what is intelligence, really?” But we have a very clear purpose for a concept of intelligence in this case: the students who scored highly and got very good grades, gaining entrance and a high rank at BLS, will probably continue to score highly and get very good grades there, and then a good college acceptance, performance there, job, etc.

      To make myself unfortunately clear: yes, I do believe intelligence exists. I am sorry if this shocks you. Yes, I do believe that the students ranked 1-40 at BLS are on average smarter than the students ranked 400-440. The difference in intelligence between the valedictorian at BLS and the last in class would be apparent to me, to you, to everybody, and for their whole lives. This is unfortunate for the last in class; I hope it was not your daughter, who I am sure is very smart.

      When we talk about various hard or soft quota systems, we are always talking about replacing one group of students – those who barely got in – with another, not terribly different group of students – those who barely didn’t get in. No, I don’t believe there should be very much difference between the average intelligence of these groups. Nor, for that matter, do I believe that either group will benefit very much from attending BLS; the studies done to date show no benefit in exam schools for the marginal students.

      When I say I am concerned about dumbing down, I mean that I feel the emphasis is all wrong once we veer into quota systems. BLS should not be brought down to the level of BPS by making it an entitlement, like a government ration book. BPS should instead be brought up to the level of BLS by making it so good that any K-6 graduate who wishes to go to an exam school can easily gain entrance.

      Dumbing down is a real problem in our schooling system right now; I did not make it up. We should resist it, here and everywhere. Why in the world do a third of students at Harvard require remedial courses? BLS should graduate no students who require remedial courses. It should only graduate the best-prepared students. In order to achieve this, it should accept no students who need remedial courses. We are not alone in the world; ratcheting down our expectations only hurts us.

      The focus on BLS as the only location where there is a problem is utterly misguided. BLS is less segregated, and more diverse, than most Boston elementary schools – and also than most Boston-area private schools. I expect it gives difficulty to some students to move from a very segregated elementary school to a place like BLS – or to most universities in our country. This is unfair to those students. The problem with quality at BPS elementary schools goes hand in hand with the problem of segregation at area elementary schools. Our children deserve better.

      What an insult it is to Boston’s minority students to say you feel they can only get into BLS if you give them a free pass. I believe Boston’s students are much smarter than that, but BPS is failing to prepare them. Instead of kicking the can down the road by giving them a free pass, and then remedial classes, and then a second-class degree, we should demand of our school leaders that they fix BPS until all Boston parents think the best way for their kids to gain entrance to BLS is to go to BPS for elementary school.

      You have had a bad reaction because I said the word “dumb.” But I am the one who argues here that Boston’s minority children are smart, and you are the one who argues that they need a special dispensation because they cannot compete. The problem is that they must be prepared better to compete, at admissions to BLS, and later on in life, and we must fix that, not just throw up our hands and call it unfair.

      This is the only real solution, because it addresses all the problems where they come together, rather than just trying to put a bandaid over one problem. We must treat the illness, not just a symptom. You would no longer need to declare so callously that the quarter of Boston’s children who don’t attend BPS don’t matter and don’t count – because that percentage would become far lower, perhaps the 10% that is our national average. You would not see the striking phenomenon of a demographic shift between BPS at large and BLS, created as children who went to private elementary schools return to BPS. And the segregation that harms our city’s children in BPS elementary schools would decline, as more parents with means felt the system met their needs.

      When I ask you to look at the city as a whole, and not think of BPS’ current elementary schools as a norm, I wish to ask why, if Boston is a world-class city with the best hospitals, best biotechnology, major financial and technical headquarters, are our schools not world-class? Why should we see such a divide? Why should BLS even seem like an exception to us? You argue that our children do not all deserve the best, and I argue that our children all deserve better.

      I thank you for conversing with me, and wish you and yours the best.

  8. Ah-hah! I thank you for another meaty comment and for finally revealing your identity in this last post. I fell for the ancient trick of misdirection, but now realize my error. I do appreciate you taking the time to interact here.

    There is no taboo around intelligence in this society, and we know well what it is. The intelligent child is one who can respond well on one or another standardized test, and we reward that ability with great gifts, such as access to schools like BLS. There is a reason we call them exam schools, no?

    Please remember what started this conversation. I suggested that BLS must find a way to walk and chew gum at the same time (even though both are prohibited for much of the school day). It must take firm and positive steps to change the climate at the school by establishing high expectations of all in the community around the we interact, and find ways to address situations in which we fail to meet those expectations (I like restorative justice as an approach here, but I haven’t talked much about that.) But in the medium to long-term, the school must also find a way to share its bounty of knowledge and relationships more equitably with the students in the system in which it sits. Today, African-American and Latino students are way underrepresented in the ranks of its students.

    These are complex problems that have no single solution. I suggest that part of the problem is in the way children find out about the exam schools, come to imagine them as part of their own experience and then go through the process of gaining access to the school. With this in mind, I offer four possible steps designed to slowly begin to change the composition of the school. BLS and the O’Bryant, for example, will probably always have quite different compositions. They have different histories and cultures, they are located in different areas of a still very segregated city and people in the city simply think of them differently. These factors will change, but at a pace much slower than the melting of the glaciers.

    If I am correct in thinking who you are, your own child would have received no “special dispensation” to attend any school. They would have gained access to BLS only through their own hard work, and the considerable advantages conferred upon them by the accident of being born into your family.

    At a recent meeting with BLS parents, one of the new administrators at the school responded to my point of view by saying, “I don’t disagree. I went to BLS and know who was there. Then I went on to spend decades teaching and knowing brilliant students who could have done very well at the school, but they never had the chance to qualify.”

    I agree with you: All our children deserve better. I hope you are finding time in your busy days to do something to make public education better for all children in Boston,..and beyond. In the meantime, amidst all the challenges, we have some wonderful resources in our public education system. BLS is just one of those resources (a particularly bright “point of light,” not the “crown jewel”). We need to do what we can to make access to those points of light much more equitable,even as we create more of them. My imperfect proposals for doing that are out there, open for criticism. ¿Y las tuyas?

    • F.Z. Perencejo

      Thank you again for your kind reply. I have enjoyed our conversation, and I appreciate how civil and pleasant you are with someone who disagrees with you. It must be a joy to work with you. I understand you feel you have deciphered my identity, and I appreciate that you understand why people might wish to present an anonymized face online.

      Per your request, here are some proposals I feel are constructive and will address many problems in our BPS system, including but not limited to inclusion of black and Hispanic children at BLS. Here is the core change, in three points:

      1: Unify the elementary-middle track at BPS: all students, not just those going to exam schools, must re-enter the lottery for seventh grade, including a unified exam school application. All elementary school buildings must be changed from K-5 or K-8 to K-6 schools. Most non-exam high schools have unused capacity and can host 7th and 8th grades as well.
      2. Stop segregating AWC students at different schools from regular track students. At the most, AWC should be a parallel classroom, if not just a pull-out a few times a week. But if it is not available at every elementary school, it should not be at any. That is unfair, and privileges those children whose parents think ahead – the ones who least need it.
      3: Place an “expectation quota” on each elementary school. Each school must send at least two children to BLS every year, or more effective leadership is required for that school.

      Right now, our elementary schools include a mixture of different options. Some students have to change schools multiple times – first in regular elementary, then in AWC at a different school, maybe then a third school to go to AWC just for 6th grade, and then if they go to an exam school that could be the fourth school for them. You’ve been there, right? Other students (hello, Haley!) don’t change at all until 9th grade. This is ridiculous. Kids should be on an even footing.

      In this city, we have a fair number of parents who burn the midnight oil trying to game the system. They will always, always, win over parents who don’t, as long as the system can be gamed. This is part of the reason certain kids end up in the AWC slots. Putting kids at different schools on a more even footing in sixth grade makes it more fair for the parents who don’t understand the system as well – guess who they are.

      Peer pressure works not just on kids but on parents. If kids are at a school where half the parents are already talking about how the conveyor belt through AWC to BLS works, their kids are more likely to go, from day one. If they are instead at a school where few kids leave for exam schools, they are disadvantaged already. This is unnecessary. It’s like an own goal. EVERY school should send kids to BLS, every school should include this pathway. This has to be an explicit expectation, part of the job of the administration and teachers. There has to be no school in this city where parents feel that their kids have to leave that school if they want a chance to go to Latin. All students in BPS should go to a school with students who have this ambition, with teachers who have this expectation.

      Another piece of the solution is a kind of a reverse chain of responsibility from BLS alums to BLS students to BPS elementary school students. It is not enough to say that certain students are owed something special at BLS or in BLS admissions. What will help more than that is the opportunity and the support for students and alumni to take responsibility for their peers and their community.

      4. Each K-6 school must hold options fairs at the end of 5th grade and at the beginning of 6th grade, with student and administration representatives from different 7-12 schools to explain the options. All those considering exam schools will receive intensive, free exam prep during the summer between 5th and 6th grade.
      5. Include outreach to elementary school of origin as a community service obligation for students at BLS and other exam schools. This can be performed at the K-6 school options fairs, or also as tutoring service for students at that school.

      Legacy is a very big locus of institutional racism. If your grandfather went to BLS, and your dad went to BLS, and your mom went to BLS, the odds that you will go to BLS are much higher already, no matter what school you go to now, and no matter how smart you are, just because you are socialized to this legacy. When we talk about minorities in Boston, we are talking almost entirely about people who do not have this legacy, this advantage. So it must be created for them, and created through people, not through algorithms. Every little Irish boy who goes to Holy Name already knows about BLS, and knows someone who went there. Every little Haitian girl who goes to the Channing should do so too.

      The people we know have more of an affect on us than anything we read in the paper, or hear in the rumor mill. Taking this people-to-people step could be the most powerful change that increases minority participation at the exam schools, but it relies on prior stabilization of the BPS elementary system. As long as we have a mish-mosh of K-5, K-8, AWC, 6-7, just 7, fractured back and forth elementary experiences, this cannot be effective.

      6. Continue to expand dual language, two-way immersion elementary education in Boston.

      If we’re going to talk about minority groups which are under-represented at BLS, we should talk a little bit more about Hispanics. Migration to Boston is enormous, almost a third of the population today, and almost half of new Bostonians are Hispanic. There are thousands more Hispanics in BPS than blacks, and the Hispanic percentage of Boston’s overall population is growing rapidly. But what are we doing as a city to welcome Hispanics to our educational system? We are creating a scholastic ghetto. Did you know that some Hispanic parents tell each other never, never to tell the BPS that you speak Spanish at home? Because if you do they might put your kids in the remedial class, for immigrants, where they half-teach them, in Spanglish, and they get nowhere. The school system calls this ELL, and they get extra money for it; parents call it a trap.

      It is a sad joke that here in Boston we say “There is Latin, which is where the English kids go, and then over there is English, where all the Latin kids go.” It is absurd. Students already fluent in Spanish should have an easier time learning Latin, not a harder time. All Hispanic children in BPS, not just mine, should understand that being Hispanic is an advantage, not a handicap, in our society. It is not a problem to be remediated, it is an opportunity we are wasting. It should not be such a long step from somos primos to Sumus Primi.

      To take better advantage of our city’s collective strength in our growing Hispanic population, we need to expand not the remedial ELL trap but the two-way immersion schools. And on this one it looks like there is a little progress. We used to have only the Hernandez, and the waiting list there, you know. Now there’s also the Hurley and the Greenwood (the Umana doesn’t really count in this category). Now they have started Margarita Muñiz Academy for high school, let’s see how that goes, but it’s a good idea. But all this is not nearly enough. That’s only about 1300 seats, and we have more than 22 thousand Hispanic students in BPS. Seriously, we are headed for a BPS that’s half Hispanic, maybe in the next decade. We shouldn’t be shutting half those kids in the ELL box. Instead we must recognize that a large part of our city, and especially our city’s kids, are and will continue to be hispanohablantes, and make many of our schools two-way immersion, to make this a strength and not a weakness. As you know, this is also a benefit to the Anglo kids in Boston.

      7. Change exam school ranking to push the decision back after acceptances. Fewer students will turn down BLS for BLA after actual acceptance, chipping away at self-segregation.

      Some of the changes we need will just be small, but will work together. If you look at the acceptance and attendance data for the exam schools, it’s clear that part of the cause of the low rate of black and Hispanic attendance at BLS is student choice. Part of what is going on is self-segregation, like all the black kids sitting at the same table in the cafeteria. Changing the way, and the time, that student choice comes into it would affect that – kids whose friends also got into BLS could decide to take that step together.

      So that’s it. That’s what I’ve got. You can see I did think about it.

      I believe that people-to-people change will be more effective than tinkering with the admissions machine behind the curtain. A technocratic solution will not be trusted in Boston – busing was a technocratic solution, and it actually made segregation worse here.

      Remember also that complication favors the wealthy – any combination of essays, portfolios, etc. will improve, not reduce, the admissions chance of wealthy kids whose parents can buy all that. That is what has happened in cities that took those steps.

      Extra points for poverty in the algorithm would affect the wealthy, but it would most hurt those who are in the lower middle class; wealthy parents will just spend the amount of money necessary to improve test scores to compensate, but those who barely fail to qualify won’t be able to – extra points for poverty could actually reduce the proportion of BPS-educated students at BLS.

      We must also stick to solutions that are plainly legal; the suggestion of limiting attendance at BLS to those who attended BPS in previous grades would certainly be challenged as a durational residency limitation inadmissible under the fourteenth amendment. It would be poor policy, also, as students who are transient or newcomers to the city would be excluded, favoring legacy students and long-time Boston residents.

      Proposing, or even being rumored to propose, controversial rule changes of dubious legality has a terrible affect on the credibility of the Superintendent’s office, and should be avoided.

      A more equal and stable system, higher expectations, outreach, people creating new traditions. These can work.

      • Thanks again, for more food for thought, even if some of it gives me indigestion. My overall comment is that we need to do things that increase the quality of education offered to all children in the BPS. As the system works to improve quality, everyone must have access to the great opportunities that exist on an equitable basis.

        Random thoughts about your points:

        1. If I didn’t know better, I’d think you had abandoned your calling as an honorable peddler and gone to work for Supt. Chang. Many of these ideas sound very familiar to me.
        2. Your first point is confusing. I don’t think you are talking about unifying the elementary and middle tracks. You are talking about separating them and making all primary schools K-6 schools. Chang is trying to rationalize grade configurations, which makes sense to me, but they need to choose very carefully what they are rationalizing “to”. There is a lot of research on this, and it is very mixed on the effectiveness of the K-6 and 7-12 breakdown.
        3. I like the idea of a unified BPS-wide lottery (not including charters, of course) that includes the exam school application.
        4. Glad to see that you understand the impact of the current AWC program. I agree that all schools need to have challenging curriculum for grades 4-6, and I also think that segregation of AWC students is a terrible idea. Chang is working on that, too, but I don’t trust that the District is doing it in a way that is going to be successful. Then comes the backlash.
        5. I like my idea of giving a preference for BPS attendees in the exam school formula, rather than creating a punitive, school-based quota.
        6. I like the “options fair” idea, but only as the culmination of an outreach/education process that began much earlier. I have also pushed for a long time the idea of BLS students doing community service in other BPS schools. This would need to be well-organized in order to matter, but it is a great idea.
        7. You know that I’m with you on the expansion of two-way bilingual programs in the BPS. IN 2016, no one who leaves 12th grade speaking only English is being well-served by our schools. And, by the way, the language education at BLS is very uneven. The BPS talks about expanding two-way schools as a goal, as well, but I don’t think they have a clue how to do it. What percentage of BPS teachers speak a language other than English and are trained to teach in that language? By coincidence, last night I spoke to two wonderful teachers from the Hernandez who have gone to another school to help build the bilingual program there. It is anything but an easy task.

        So there are many other things to do, but I think we need to tinker with the sorting hat, as well. This won’t work alone, but the other changes won’t impact the BLS composition problem without a change in the way students are chosen for the school. I’m not sure what you mean by the “lower middle class” people who will be hurt by a slight preference for children from lower-income backgrounds. When the made parents fill out a form to test eligibility for either free or reduced price lunch, well over two-thirds of BPS families were in one of those categories. I don’t think there are many of those “lower middle class” people in the top third of families by income. And I’ll say once more that I never suggested that non-BPS parents be excluded from anything. I suggest a small preference for families who are applying to exam schools having attended BPS schools. Neither this nor the income preference has ever been found to be illegal, and it won’t be found so here, either.

        We won’t agree on this, but there is enough that we do agree on to make this conversation worthwhile.

  9. F.Z. Perencejo

    PI, I think we agree more than we disagree. We both wish all the people of Boston to have an excellent and fair school system. I’d like to see it be so excellent that people stop running away from it, and move here on purpose for it.

    To respond to your point 2 in your July 31 post, I am talking about unifying the BPS elementary-middle school track. That is, I believe there should be one standard track, not a half-dozen variant tracks. That is what I mean by unifying. Perhaps standardizing is a better term. Speaking of standardizing, I’m sure you are aware that there is not a universally accepted definition of what is middle school, and what is junior high, and what is high school. I believe sixth grade is most typically considered part of middle school, which comprises sixth, seventh, and eighth grades. Different places do it differently; here we do it more than one way, at the same time. What a bad idea that is, and unnecessary.

    To clarify the statement I made previously about legal challenges, in your original post you suggested (#3) limiting or including an admissions preference for students who attended three years of BPS prior to 7th grade. This can (and would) be interpreted as a durational residency requirement. You cannot require a person to live in Boston for three years before they get the right to vote here, and you cannot require a student to live in Boston for three years before they can apply to exam schools. The fourteenth amendment guarantees us that if we move to another state we are citizens there immediately, not just after a probationary period. Such a measure could not be enacted.

    I think my major disagreement with you is about cooking up a formula with extra points for this and that. You call it the sorting hat; I call it a black box. I think things should all be out front, not hidden where they can be tinkered with. Each student’s acceptance letter now shows their scores and their grades. If you want to give extra points for this and that, the letters should report those too. Keep it out front. Otherwise the politicians will keep sticking their paws into the black box, and nobody will trust the results. I don’t think we should underestimate lack of trust as a complicating factor in our current system; we should be careful, and try to minimize it.

    Any extra points for this and that should be open, debated, and considered temporary, because the goal must be to have a system that fixes things moving forward, not a system that excuses things looking backward. There is no end to excuses, once you start. Fifty points doesn’t do the trick, so you give a hundred points, and now you want to say you fixed the problem but really you didn’t fix anything at all, next year it will be a hundred and fifty points you need. There is no substitute for fixing the schools.

    I was cheered by the recent article in the Atlantic lauding the strengths of Boston’s public preschool program. I like what they suggest about building on the strengths of the preschool and moving those successes up through the grades. I believe that an improved BPS system must include such preschool for all parents who want it. Otherwise, this is where educational inequality begins, and we are always playing catch-up.

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