Category Archives: Exam Schools

Bumps along the road where Boston’s three exam schools live.

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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The Exam School Choice #16: #BlackAtBLS

Boston Latin GateThe Parent Imperfect has so far been silent about a student action at the nation’s oldest public school that has captured local and national attention. #BlackAtBLS is certainly on the minds of just about everyone now at the school and many of the hundreds of families thinking about sending a seventh or a ninth grader to the school next year.

On the evening of Martin Luther King Day, Connie should have been finishing the ridiculous amount of Math homework she was given for the holiday weekend, but, instead, she was glued to her phone.

“Everyone’s talking about this video about being black at BLS. It’s really interesting. People are going to wear all black to school tomorrow if they are supporting this.”

I admit it. My first reaction was, “That’s great, but is your homework done?” Even when she read out a particularly disturbing tweet written by a student at another school, I didn’t really understand what was going on.

The next day, Connie went off to school dressed in black, which is not her usual fashion choice. Her commitment to stand out (a fate worse than detention for a 14-year-old) led me to check out the first #BlackAtBLS video. The video is a direct and very provocative statement of what it is like to be #BlackAtBLS by two young black women. It isn’t slick, but the message is very clear: BLS has a problem with racism and the school administration is aware of the problem, but hasn’t done nearly enough about it.

Global ImageIn the three weeks since the video came out, local newspapers have written several stories about the campaign, its leaders have testified before the Boston School Committee and appeared on TV and radio. #BlackAtBLS has proven itself to be a master in the use of social media and other new communications. BLS has gained national attention from the campaign, but certainly not the sort of attention that it desires. And the attention isn’t just national. I have received e-mails or other social media messages from people in England, El Salvador, South Africa, Sweden, Costa Rica, Peru, Turkey and Nicaragua, all asking me what’s up with this supposedly outstanding school where I’ve sent my kids. If only good news traveled so quickly. Yes, I can be a snarky critic of BLS, but I care about the school it hurts to confront this side of a community that has played a huge role in my family life for the past seven years.

One week after the release of the #BlackAtBLS video, the Headmaster released a “Memo to the Boston Latin School Community.” The memo was promptly posted to the school website and distributed to students, parents, teachers and staff. I commend Ms. Mooney Teta for responding promptly to the campaign. Her response is frank and heartfelt, and makes several important statements, but it disappoints me in a couple of key ways.

auditorium 2First of all, it fails to validate the concerns of BLS B.L.A.C.K. by acknowledging that there is a problem of racism at the school. The statement lends itself to the soothing notion that these are isolated incidents in which students unfortunately feel that they are victims of racism. At least as importantly, while Ms. Mooney Teta’s memo emphasizes that, “We need to insure that hateful, intolerant, disrespectful speech or actions will not be considered acceptable anywhere at BLS,” it fails to acknowledge that students have brought evidence of such speech and actions to the administration and that the response of the administration has ranged from inadequate to nonexistent.

I fully understand the risks of validating the concerns of this campaign, and acknowledging the shortcomings of one’s own leadership in this regard, but the risks of not doing so are much greater. It seems clear that without such validation and acknowledgement, it will be hard to move forward as a community toward addressing this problem. The last few weeks of publicity have hurt the public image of the school in the Boston community and beyond. That damage can certainly be repaired, but only if the entire school community is convinced that BLS is committed to becoming a community that truly celebrates diversity and insists on mutual respect among all members.

TestimonyWhen the young women in the #BLackAtBLS video testified before the Boston School Committee, a Committee member asked them what sort of support they had received from parents at the school. The answer that they hadn’t yet received concrete actions of support from parents was a painful one for all parents in the audience to hear. Since that time, the Parent-to-Parent group, a subcommittee of the Parent Council, has discussed #BlackAtBLS and made plans to support it. Other parents have taken steps to form groups to support particular groups of students at the school, such as students of color and LGBT students. A group of parents even stayed at the school for 90 minutes after an exhausting Parent Open House this past Thursday to discuss engaging with the school administration over these issues. Now that students have taken the risks to get this discussion started, maybe we parents will find ways to take a few of our own risks to support them.

 

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The Power of Connection (and Disconnection)

finallySo much has happened since April, when the Parent Imperfect last appeared, much of it related to a huge life transition for Vince, and the rest of us. Starting in April, he completed our haphazard process of choosing a college, finished volleyball season, and careened toward the completion of his senior year. Then, against the backdrop of a quickening drum roll,  he discovered exactly one day before Senior Release Day that he was actually going to be released (rather than “held” in the school cafeteria until he paid his last dues). On June 8, Vince joined over 300 classmates in a joyous and windy graduation ceremony on the Boston waterfront.

After six years of soaring highs and dramatic lows, he had made it through the nation’s oldest public school. One down and one to go…I have had many critical things to say about Boston Latin School in these pages, and I still feel the same way on most of those issues. But I can’t close the book (or the blog) on Vince’s experience at the school without remembering a couple of things about the place.

Path to CollegeTo attend BLS is to embark on a path to a four-year college. Any alternative path carries a strong stigma; Even the now quite acceptable idea of the “gap” year is not supported or encouraged in a way that makes it a “cool” thing to do. Vince was never all that excited about immediately taking on four more years of academic pressure and “boring” classes. However, since all his friends were moving in that direction, to do something else would have been way too risky, emotionally.

So it is that Vince headed down the path to a four-year college. As he made his way over the rocks, downed trees and other obstacles, the Guidance Department at BLS, and especially its Director, supported him (and his clueless parents) in a way that he had never been supported at the school. He didn’t get stunning individual counseling from his own guidance counselor, but even this improved at college crunch time, and the department director provided a steady flow of information and support that were really important to us. Every high school student in Boston should have such attention and support.

Teachers MatterIf you’ve read these pages consistently over the years, you are familiar with Vince’s problems with some of his teachers at BLS. He had several real stinkers, two or three of whom almost forced him out of the school. I have shared less about the small number of teachers who had a huge positive influence on Vince and helped pave the way for his late-spring walk in the funny purple cape. Vince continues to mention an eighth-grade English teacher, an eleventh-grade Science teacher and a Social Studies teacher that he was lucky to have in both eleventh and twelfth grade. In their own way, each of them touched Vince and had an important impact on his development, especially his sense of self worth. Our entire family owes those people and a few more like them a great debt.

Vince was one of those relatively rare kids who made it through fourteen years in the Boston Public Schools while attending only two schools, the Rafael Hernández and Boston Latin. While his group of close school friends changed greatly over time, six of the children who were with him on his first day of K1 walked with him this June.

Help from my friendsWhat allowed him to make it through the nation’s oldest, more than his guidance counselor or his teachers or even his loving family (mood music) was his friends. They didn’t always lead him to the best decisions and they were not, at every moment, the friends I’d have chosen for him (thankfully), but they were great young people who cared about him as much as he cared about them. They were there for him when shit happened, and it happened quite a bit at BLS. Going through a really difficult experience together creates a bond…a kind of solidarity, and it was on that solidarity that Vince finally floated away from Avenue Louis Pasteur.

Ithaca CollegeVince is now on to the next adventure, in a place that takes longer to get to than LA. He spent the summer training us for his absence by creating emotional distance and essentially using our abode as a flop house with provisions. It is one thing to get used to life in Roslindale without him, but it is quite another to know so little about what he is doing or how he is. The patient training continues…

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The Exam School Choice, #15: A mystery solved…sort of

Devil in the detailsThe Parent Imperfect got many questions (both online and offline) about the last post about how students get placed in the exam schools. Some people reported to me that they had put BLA first, but had gotten placed in BLS. This was a bit of an eye-opener, since other people said that they had chosen BLS first and gotten placed in BLA. What’s up? How is that possible, unless someone is doing the ropa’ dopa’ with this process?

One of these folks got back to me with an interesting explanation of how that happened, in her case.. When this woman investigated with the exam school people at the BPS, it turns out that the BPS never received the choice form for this student. The school had record of it being handed in, but it never got to Court St (Dudley, I guess, by this time). I had to chuckle as this is exactly what happened with our dear daughter, not once, but TWICE! Why do we bother filling out these forms?

In any case, when the BPS doesn’t have a choice form for a child that has taken the test, they have a default order of preference that they enter for him/her. It is: 1. BLS 2. BLA 3. O’Bryant. Isn’t that an interesting assumption? In any case, this child was assigned to BLS because that’s what the District assumed she wanted. Happily, because her mother is metida, this child is now high on the waiting list for BLA, and will likely get in there. All’s well that ends well, right??????

That explains this case, but what about the others?

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Exam School Choice, #14: But BLA was my first choice!

The LetterOn 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.

Latin AcademyI’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).

Wolfpack3. 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.

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The exam school choice, #13…something missing?

Latin EnglishThere is nothing quite like the Thanksgiving Day football game between Boston English and Boston Latin to get the Parent Imperfect thinking about the exam school choice in Boston. It is a huge choice for many individual families in the city, but it is also a choice that we, as a city, make each year about the sort of school system we want to have for our children.

This year, I’ve received an unusual number of questions about the BPS exam schools, some from perfect strangers. Last Saturday was the final day for students in Grades 6 and 8 to take the Independent School Entrance Examination (ISEE) in hopes of entering one of the Boston’s exam schools for the coming year. I remember well that the parental stress level increased greatly in the days before that test. Now, at least there is a little break before the next decision point, when one must register for school and state preferences regarding the three exam schools in the system.

The calendar has generated many of the questions, but there has been another factor this year. In the midst of this year’s selecting season, BPS leadership has endorsed some eye-opening proposals to change the way students get into the exam schools.

Earlier in November, a highly publicized study of Black and Latino male achievement in the BPS confirmed what everyone in the system knows perfectly well. That the exam schools and the Advanced Work Class (AWC) programs are key elements of a system of tracking that aggravates the achievement gap in city schools. The question is what to do about the problem.

Opportunity and EnrollmentThe study, co-published by the BPS and two of the leading educational research organizations in the area, makes a number of recommendations, two of which focus on AWC and the exam schools. It recommends making all grade 4-6 programs Advanced Work programs, which is a positive way of saying that we should end the current practice of, beginning in fourth grade, taking the kids who score highest on a certain test out of their school communities and grouping them in special classrooms. If that’s not bold enough, the study went on to recommend that only children who attend the BPS for Grades 5 and 6 be eligible to apply for admission to the exam schools. This would eliminate the time-tested path to the exam schools, especially Boston Latin School, that passes through private and parochial schools. The goal would be to make the student composition of the exam schools more closely reflect the composition of the BPS, as a whole. I’ve seen proposals like this before (even made some), but at least in my memory, I’ve not seen a proposal like either of these in a document endorsed by the BPS.

Does this change anything for the kids who just took the test? I doubt it, at least in the short run. As in the past, families will rate the exam schools, according to their preferences, and test results will be fed, along with students’ Grade 5 and Grade 6 grades into the mysterious function machine that generates invitations to the O’BryantBLA and BLS.

Deciding on our order of preference among the schools felt like less of a turning point when we applied for Vince, as the word on the street was that it was pretty easy to choose BLS at first, and then change one’s mind later (not surprisingly, to change one’s preference to BLS was less simple, but that wasn’t our strategy). Now, because more and more parents apparently are making either the O’Bryant or BLA their first choice, it is more difficult to later change one’s first choice, regardless of what it is. I can find no data that says that more parents are choosing the O’Bryant and BLA first, but the cryptic placement results received by Connie suggest that it is, in fact, the case.

Latin crosswalkIn Vince’s case we later wished that we had paid more attention to the choice among exam schools. Even though it wasn’t at all clear to us that Vince’s learning style would work well at BLS (Liz will say that she was sure that it wouldn’t), we were convinced by the argument that said, “If he gets into BLS, let him try it. If it doesn’t work out, he can always switch.” Don’t be fooled by that argument. I can name you 25 kids in Vince’s senior class who have struggled mightily for 5+ years at BLS, but have resisted the idea of changing schools. Some parents of such students were clear enough or desperate enough to make the decision for their offspring, but we are among those who did not do so. In public conversation, Vince will say consistently that he really likes his school, and I have stopped doubting him on this point. He really likes the friends he has made at BLS, some of his teachers have been excellent and I expect that he likes being able to tell people that he goes to the such a revered high school. But all that love has come with considerable stress and conflict (for the whole family) and no small loss of self-esteem for the young man.

BLS has 2400 students, give or take a few, which I believe is way too many for a school with its approach to teaching and learning.  The “business model” of the school requires that the school admit well over 100 students each year that will face serious difficulties in adapting to its standards. There are more programs in place to support students in their transition (Saturday Success School, peer tutoring, etc.) than existed 10-15 years ago, but seventh graders at the school are still very much on their own to make their way in a large and unforgiving environment. There are, after all, something like 525 of them in seventh grade, so support anything like that received at many private schools is simply out of the question.

We visited both BLA and the O’Bryant with Vince and Connie. They liked things about the O’Bryant, but neither was drawn to attend the school. We never explored the reasons for that enough, but they seemed to have a mildly negative impression of the school before we even saw the place. Both liked BLA and would probably have quite happily gone there, had their parents pushed the issue, but we did not. They visited BLS after BLA and then “shadowed” a student at the school for a day. They didn’t shadow at either the O’Bryant or BLA. After shadowing, they were officially caught up in the hype and, truth be told, so were their parents. In the end, both Vince and Connie were on pins and needles in the days before their assignment arrived, anxious to hear that they were going to BLS.

The HypeThere is so, so much to say about the “hype,” and I surely can’t do it justice here. The hype is a comparative framing of the three schools and the way they sit in the whole BPS system (remember the English-Latin football game). Much of it is about the “best,” the exclusivity of exam schools and the power of the history embodied, especially, in BLS. But lurking in the definition of “best” are also powerful, often subliminal, messages about race, class and difference. I’m not accusing any school or any group within any school of projecting such messages. No one needs to project them: They are perfectly obvious, even if you aren’t looking for them, and they are powerfully reinforced by messages we all receive daily.

The hype and all of the changes going on for these kids (and their parents) at this time of their lives creates an emotional stew around the exam school decision that is even more toxic than the one surrounding Advanced Work Class. As parents who are busy doing too many things already, it is very easy to not deal with the complexity of this decision, let “the flow” carry one to a decision, and then, two years later, be wondering what happened.

Community conversationsWhat does it mean to “deal with the complexity” of this decision? The two-sentence descriptions of each of the exam schools are, by now, well known. Visiting each school usually provides enough information and direct experience to begin to challenge the stereotypes. People (especially mothers) discuss the topic obsessively among friends. And, of course, we try to talk with our children about what they want for themselves.

All of this is great and necessary. We did it all, but felt that something was missing. Maybe what was missing in our experience was any kind of a space for a broader community conversation about the choice, one in which we could get outside of our tight networks of friends and hear what others–including others who don’t have the exam school choice–feel about that choice. I remember really wishing that we could have this kind of conversation, even among parents at the Hernández, when Vince was in sixth grade. Since Connie was only at the Irving for a year, we didn’t have that kind of connection with parents there, so a different conversation would have been needed.

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Five Not-So-Easy Pieces: The Sixie Family Survival Guide

The SculptureThe Parent Imperfect and family made it through Day Won of the new school year. When I asked Connie what was different this year, she said, “Everything’s different…I’m not a “sixie” any more.”

“Sixie” is the term affectionately given to seventh graders at the nation’s oldest public school. Now that we have twice been through the process of parenting a child living this unique experience, it’s time to suggest a few things that the parent of a sixie might have in mind as the shock of this transition begins to wear off. This started out as a “Sixie Parent’s Survival Guide,” but it’s really a family thing. I honestly don’t know if they use this retrograde idea of “sixies” at the other exam schools, but this is about BLS. I asked Vince if he had anything for me to put in a guide for the families of sixies. Without hesitation, he answered, “Yeah…put, ‘Don’t Read This!!!’ in huge letters at the top.” I’ve just realized that BLS publishes its own “Parent Survival Kit,” so its probably a good thing that I changed the name.

Many sixie parents/guardians have been through this before, either with an older student, or as a student, themselves. I’d bet that as many as one-fourth of the parents of incoming sixies are veterans of the process. That’s a lot of experience, but it leaves as many as 375 families who are going through this for the first time. This “guide” is for you and your families. Since many who will read this have been through it all before, I hope you’ll take the time to correct the ideas in here that just don’t make sense to you. These are in no particular order.

PIECE ONE: Think carefully about social media with your child. In the four years that passed between Child 1’s sixie year and that of Child 2, social media among seventh graders at BLS has gone from being silly and seriously problematic to being highly toxic and downright dangerous. It is the way that many sixies “connect” at a moment when they desperately need connection. Important and positive communication absolutely takes place among youth via social media, but it is also a place where they get to try on their darker sides. You know about that, right?

Bad GirlLast spring, a “friend” of Connie’s accessed her Twitter account and spewed out several really terrible tweets before Connie realized what was happening and shut the thing down. Connie is still dealing with the damage this caused to people hurt by those tweets, including herself. Two evenings ago, a tenth-grade friend of Connie’s had her account taken over by a truly deranged young male (probably a perfectly charming lad, if you met him walking down Centre St.). I assume that this was someone she knew, since he had her password. Sadly, kids do much worse than this out of their own accounts, using their own identities.

We (Liz, actually) contacted the school administration about this problem last year at the end of school, and got NO RESPONSE (get used to this…you’re just one of 3500 parents at the school). The administration may be doing something other than monitoring the internal wireless channel, but they are not doing enough to address cyber-bullying and the like at the school. By acting like clueless people of another generation, we/they are courting disaster, and I occasionally lose sleep about some of the things that I find out about. I know nothing…

This summer, I’ve been reading a book called, The Big Disconnectby Katherine Steiner-Adair and Theresa Barker. The book is only minimally preachy and it collects and presents valuable data on things that you already know, intuitively. What makes it stand out for me is that it forces me to face the ways that my own media/communication habits (this blog, for example) influence what our children do with social media and, especially, how they connect to me (or not). For that challenge, alone, the book was well worth what it cost me to take it out of the library.

PIECE TWO: Find a way to get to sixie parents’ night. This is the maddening evening when you drive to the school, can’t find a place to park, get into the school too late and spend the rest of the evening trying to catch up to your child’s schedule. It’s worth it, though. Take public transport, carpool or get there early enough to get a parking place (a half hour before the thing starts). Then you will go to your child’s homeroom and get their schedule for a mythical day. You’ll then go through the schedule for 8 minute classes. You’ll get to lay eyes on the teachers and introduce yourself to a few of them. They will give you a little syllabus and tell you the best way to contact them. WRITE THAT DOWN SOMEPLACE WHERE IT WON’T GO AWAY FOR THE ENTIRE YEAR! Most importantly, moving through the day in this way will begin to give you an idea of what you have subjected your child to. WARNING! They changed Parent’s Night last year in a way that made it much less useful. I hope they’ve changed it back this year. This year’s Class VI (and Class V) BLS Parents’ Night is on Tuesday, September 16 at 5:30PM in the cafeteria.

WolfpackPIECE THREE:  Join “The Village.” If you are reading this, you waste a good deal of time in front of a computer. Join the BLS community mail-list and waste a little more. Very many of the messages won’t be relevant to you. Others will be relevant, but infuriating. But ten per cent of the messages will have info that you need and can’t easily get, elsewhere. Despite the presence of many BLS parents and the list being called “BLS Parents,” this is not a parents’ list. Remember that when you post to the list. School administrators lurk incessantly, as do some teachers and some parents whose kids are long gone from the school. I think there needs to be an unofficial parents list that only contains parents (There’s a project for you….)  Given the wild stuff on “The Village” over the years, pretty much anything goes, but people draw the line at personal attacks on one another and direct references to specific teachers. If you want to communicate with someone directly, do so off the list. At least twice a year, a new parent on the list is humiliated by broadcasting something quite personal or inflammatory meant for a single person, to several hundred people. It does not seem possible to subscribe automatically to the list. You have to e-mail the list moderator, and I doubt he’d want me to put his e-mail on this blog. If you comment to this blog that you can’t get his address, I’ll send it to you.

PIECE FOUR: Be smart about homework. A couple of years ago, our neighbor’s girlfriend, who was about to graduate as one of those BLS superstars, gave Connie some advice. “You don’t have to be super-smart to do great at BLS. You just need to make the teachers like you, find out what the homework is and do it. The problem is that it’s very hard to do all those things, all the time.” “Very hard” is quite an understatement.

Yes, make sure your child has a comfy and quite place to do homework. Yes, come to some understanding about the rules around electronic distractions during homework time. Yes, occasionally check assignments. Yes, be available for your child to ask you questions about the homework (on the usually mistaken assumption that you can help him/her), but make sure that they do the homework, not you. And yes, let it be known when you think a teacher is breaking the most broken policy at BLS, the homework policy.

Do all those things, but also be smart about homework. Your seventh grader came home yesterday with the famous Agenda. They are trained to list all assignments in the agenda, but only a minority of them do so. Look at the agenda with him/her each night to be sure that this is happening. Be clear with them that, while it shouldn’t be this way, getting the homework assignment is one of the most important things they will do in each class. Each teacher gives the assignment differently, and at least half of them will do it in a way that is not good communication for your child. Many very intelligent children at the school do not thrive at BLS either because they don’t get the assignment, or don’t give a crap about it…or both. Working with your child on this simple transaction (getting the homework) will be MUCH more important than wasting your time, and theirs, breathing down their necks while they try to study the dictionary entry for that Latin verb. And make sure they have a homework buddy for each class…someone they can call on the off chance that they didn’t get the assignment. Make your own list of the buddies.

In seventh grade, there is an optimal percentage of the homework that each student should do. It’s different for each student. No student should think they can get away with doing 40% of their assignments, but nor should anyone feel that they must do 100%, either. There will be many nights when it is more important–for the entire family–that your child to do what they can and then get some sleep. Help them realize that.

Friends of ArtsPIECE FIVE:  Connect to the community. One of the things that both our seventh graders had in common is that they begged us to stay away from the school. What could be more embarrassing than having your older-than-usual parents hanging around your middle/high school? Many bones in my body agreed with them. I have too much to do already, and I was/am quite ambivalent of being part of a community around what I consider to be an elitist institution that reproduces many of the things that make me want to holler.

But at some point I realized that I was on a path to having my two kids in this school for a total of 12 years. For the kids, finding a way to connect to the place was going to be critical to their survival there, and was not going to be easy. Maybe the parents making an effort to connect to this quirky community was going to both help Vince and Connie in their struggles to connect, and it just might also give us a sense our own sense of connection that we also need if our kids are going to spend so much time at the school.

This is a work in progress. We still have too much to do and aren’t really connected. We still get frustrated by our efforts to engage with the school, but we try. Vince and Connie continue to redirect us away from BLS, at every turn, but they occasionally let it slip that they like us to be SORT OF connected to their lives.

Whoever you are, there is something going on at the school that you can connect to. They’ve got the Friends of the Arts, the Friends of Athletics, and even the Friends of People Who Are So Angry With the School That They Could Scream. Connect to help. Connect to meet others who share your experience. Connect to complain. Connect to survive.

Ugh! This is way too long. Do correct what seems wrong to you!

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Filed under Boston Public Schools, Exam Schools