Tag Archives: Boston Latin Academy

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 #10, The Golden Fleece

The Golden FleeceThe Parent Imperfect has become something of a one-trick pony lately. It’s much easier to talk about (and do something about) “the assignment policy” than to help our own children find their way in the Boston Public Schools.

But while I’ve been sitting in interminable Boston School Committee meetings, the clock has been ticking inexorably toward another of those decision points. Being a sixth grader, dear Connie is in the midst of an assignment moment that was almost never mentioned in the year-long assignment policy discussion. If the walk-zone preference is the “Sacred Cow” of Boston school politics, then the exam schools are certainly its “Golden Fleece,” the mythical prize that knowing parents are supposed to have in mind from Day One of their BPS Odyssey.

Vince’s experience has shown that the fleece isn’t so golden for everyone. But, for the moment we’re talking about Connie’s choice, not her brother’s. It’s “once bitten, twice shy,” right?

Mail slotThe last time, the news came in through the mail slot on a Friday afternoon. For some reason, I first came home to look at the letter before I picked up Vince and Connie, who were then spending many of their after school hours at the Jamaica Plain Branch of the Boston Public Library. He was overjoyed at the news.

But times have changed…This past Friday, when I came home early from work, Connie was sitting in our living room with the white MacBook on her lap, staring at the screen.

Y  ¿qué noticias hay?, I asked as I came in the door.

“I don’t know. The website’s not working. not the app they gave us or the BPS site.”

It was true. Heavy traffic apparently had crashed the site through which the BPS was telling families where the sorting hat had placed them. Since at 2PM, almost all BPS children were still in school, it was curious parents who had overwhelmed the available bandwidth.

I can honestly say that I had forgotten that Friday was the day until Connie anxiously texted me the moment she got out of the Irving at 11:20AM (half-day on Friday because of the nine-hour Monday-Thursday marathon). She hadn’t really been talking much about the tension she was feeling about this day, but it was clear that everyone in her class had been talking about it that Friday.

“Vamos a volver a ver el sitio después de tu clase. Todo el mundo está tratando de ver su resultado de una vez.”

She picked up her sheet music and we headed off to her piano class. I wondered how she would be able to concentrate on “Fur Elise” with the sorting hat so much on her mind, but luckily, she’s much more focused than her father.

At just after 5PM, she was looking over my shoulder as the uncrashed website loaded on the screen. Just to build the suspense, I acted as though the site wouldn’t scroll the inch we need to see the key info, but she wasn’t buying it. Connie took the “Down” arrow into her own hands and, there it was…It was now officially her choice whether or not she wanted to be in the same school with big brother for the first time in four years.

A sort-of-audible, “Yes!” emerged from somewhere inside her. She was not as excited as her brother had been, four years before, but she was clearly happy that it would now be her choice (with a little help from her friends) whether or not she would attend the school that had caused so much sturm und drang in her house over the past 1400 days.

The logo for Boston Latin School's athletic teams

As far as the BPS is concerned, the decision is now made. The sorting hat has spoken. Those offered the Golden Fleece will, of course, either accept it, or abandon the odyssey for some other journey. But Connie will want to talk about this. She’ll want to talk about how she felt when she visited the nation’s oldest public school. She, more than I (I’m used to it by now), felt that BLS was doing us a favor by showing us their school, while a very different visit to Boston Latin Academy seemed intent on getting us to think of BLA as “our” school. She’ll want to talk to her good friend from the Hernández about how happy she is at BLA, but she’ll also be talking a lot to her friends from the Irving, many of whom will have gotten the same result she did. In those discussions, there will be much excitement about embracing the Golden Fleece, together, and less about the privilege the fleece represents. And she’ll want to talk about what she felt as we walked through the music department at BLS, where students just a couple of years older than Connie practiced the violin, the cello, the French horn and the clarinet. And she’ll especially want to remember the way her mouth literally fell open when we entered the library at BLS from above. The libraries at the Hernández (nonexistent), the Hennigan and the Irving, taken together, wouldn’t fill even a corner of the BLS space.

We’ll talk as if all options remain before us. Connie’s Mom, to her unending credit, will challenge Connie to remember that both schools have the same curriculum and to think about who she’ll be going to school with and to imagine how she will feel in the two schools. She’ll do all that challenging, and then she’ll listen to what Connie wants and we’ll make a decision…hopefully the right one.  Help!

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The Exam School Choice, IX: Phoebe’s Fable

Home Sweet HomeYou’ve probably noticed that the Parent Imperfect doesn’t receive a lot of comments from its loyal readers. You’d think that at least a few of the 100,000 or so 😉 people who read each post would have something to say about it, but…

What is true is that many people who have unraveled the great mystery of the Parent Imperfect send me comments on the side. I always say, “Why don’t you post this to the blog so others can see it?” but no dice. Once in a while one of these comes along that I need to post, even if the writer won’t post it. That happened last week, after I wrote about the difficulty of the Exam School Choice for Dear Connie (more for her father, really). The names have been changed here to protect the innocent…Let’s call it “Phoebe’s Fable.”

We felt the same way last year at this time, or maybe earlier… Anyway, in the fall last year we were midst of feeling rotten about the nation’s oldest and feeling great about Sara’s K-8 school… and I was probably doing my own mourning about leaving that place, which was such an amazingly rich experience for her and for me.  
 
Front GateAnyway, we just weren’t sure that BLS was the best match for Sara and we felt like BLA might really offer the right amount of academic challenge and social diversity that has been so important in her life (less so for Daniel, in the short run, but that’s another story).  We made a real decision to pursue both options equally from the beginning, not favoring one over the other in how we talked, touring both, and really explicitly talking about the pluses and minuses.  We talked to as many kids and parents as we could in her presence so she could get a feel of both from the ground (not just from her brother).  
 
In the end, the decision was really hard with major factors being all the ones you’d suspect:  BLA = more supportive, less intense amount of work, more diversity, harder to get to (practicalities were a factor, though small).  BLS = probably more kids she’d know, easy travel, harder to get into, more of a challenge (her words).  In the end I felt thoroughly torn and agonized as usual, but she was the one who made the call.  It came down to this:  “I think I’d be happy at either, and BLA would probably be the right amount of work for me but I feel like I’d be more challenged at BLS and this is something that I think would be good for me and is something that I want.”  This was a real shock to us as, though she’s been a strong student, we didn’t know this part of her and had definitely never heard anything like that from Daniel.  We ended up ranking it #1 over BLA really based on this and the idea that we couldn’t override her ‘ambition’ when we’d allowed Daniel to go there (gender politics in play here, too).  This ranking, done in January, sat with me for the two months of waiting and I really still felt unsure that we’d done the right thing.
 
Test TakingFast forward to the end of first term:  the school seems like a different place with her as a student.  I feel like I now have a better window into why some parents are NOT up in arms about the inconsistent announcing of homework, the unfair teachers, the punitive attitude, the lack of communication, etc..  It quite simply IS a different school for her.  She’s working hard (no instrument so she has one to two studies a day and uses them well, it seems) and then works between one and two hours a night, but then has four hours completely off because she’s actually done and not dragging the torture out.  We’re almost completely hands off besides the occasional quizzing on stuff, which she initiates.  NO PARENT TORTURE!  This magical formula has led to good grades and to a very happy child.  Granted, she’s not in Cluster A (still rumored to be harder, but exorcised of some of its demons) and it’s still only one term in, so this all could be temporary.  Socially she’s really happy, and though she’s maintaining close ties with her two closest elementary school friends and making a diverse group of new friends, her social world is tilted toward the neighborhood a bit much for my taste.
 
I feel sure that the suck-i-ness of BLS will rear its head for her, too, at some point, and I may curse my words, but right now I have no regrets.  I feel pretty certain she’d be happy at BLA too, but I do think that the challenge has turned out to be up her alley and the amount she’s learning (really just due to her hard work) is pretty exciting.  
 
Overall it’s been another reminder that perspective is paramount.  Different child, different school.  Take this with a healthy grain of salt though, as maybe I’m just still exhaling from the worry that this would be a disaster for her and for us.  Just wanted to add my two cents to the mix. 
So, there it is, the parental guidance that I crave. It’s not news to me that the nation’s oldest can be a great place for students ready to deal with its quirks. “It’s not for everyone,” but it’s definitely for some. Plenty of Vince’s friends and their families fit the description. I can easily imagine Connie following the same path as Sara, and really thriving at the school. I can also imagine other outcomes. We’re definitely on that path, but it’s a strange place to be as Vince’s struggles with the place seem to be approaching a tipping point. Once bitten, twice shy. If the two of them end up in the same school, how will Vince feel having a high-octane sister sweep in behind him? Maybe I should follow Phoebe’s example and ask him…

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