There 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.
The 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’Bryant, BLA 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.
In 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.
There 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.
What 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.