Tag Archives: Boston Latin School

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?

16 Comments

Filed under Boston Public Schools, Exam Schools

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.

 

7 Comments

Filed under Boston Public Schools, Exam Schools

Parenting the Beautiful Game, #1

Beautiful GameThe Parent Imperfect promotes a big lie by suggesting that his parenting is mostly about school assignment, charter school expansion, Advanced Work Class and the exam school choice, in short, the improvement and the defense of public education. In truth, my parenting is much more about managing the stress of young people attending the stress factory that is the nation’s oldest public school, and parenting soccer. I’ve somehow become a most unlikely soccer Dad.

Vince began playing soccer with JP Children’s Soccer in September 2001. You probably remember that month–especially its 11th day–for another reason. That was a busy month in our household. It was also the month that Vince began K-1 at the Rafael Hernández School, and the month in which his then little sister was born.

Vince didn’t immediately love soccer, but it grew on him. He tried several other sports, but soccer was the constant through ninth grade. He was not the kind of kid to be head over heels in love with a sport–it was all about doing something with his friends for Vince–but he came to really like soccer. As a result, we spent a fair amount of time getting him to practice and attending his games. Probably too much of dear Connie’s early life was conditioned by Vince’s soccer schedule. She attended dozens of games and endured many hours in the restraints of the car seat as her parents moved Vince through his appointed rounds.

Connie was curious about the game, but never really got into it. We often joke that she concluded that, if her brother could play soccer, than it probably wasn’t a game worthy of her attention. At her parents’ mild urging, she tried it a couple of times as a little kid, but it just wasn’t her thing. At that point, Jamaica Plain Children’s Soccer had adopted an “academy” format that focused on basic skills building in fluid groups of children, rather than the formation of set, competitive teams. Connie had no patience for that format, so she pursued other interests.

Sadly, soccer was one of the early casualties of Vince’s attendance at Boston Latin School. At the moment of his highest interest in the game, he was not playing, and not playing soccer meant disconnection from his most important group of friends. By the end of ninth grade, the interest in soccer was gone, and he had moved on to an entirely different social group at the school. He still does something with a soccer ball on the front porch almost every time he leaves our house, but he has never played soccer again. Perhaps he’ll pick it up again in the future, when it doesn’t matter quite as much.

IMG_0316For almost two years, there was very little soccer parenting at our house. Vince turned to basketball, and, then, volleyball. The work of keeping him in the school he refused to leave was plenty to keep us busy. Connie tired of spending her time at Vince’s soccer games, and developed her own strong interests in theater, music (piano), dance and, most of all, in becoming very acquainted with her body through gymnastics. Soon, Vince was going to as many of her meets, recitals, etc. as she was his. We, her parents, supported all of these interests, on the one hand, because we were/are nuts, and, on the other, because school did not take up a great deal of her time and attention during those years. Neither Liz nor I had ever played soccer or knew the least bit about the game, but, to each other, we admitted that we missed it. There was social connection in it for us, as well, and on the days when it wasn’t freezing cold, raining or (as in the case of a memorable day at Fort Devens) snowing like crazy, it could be very pleasant to sit outside and watch kids play.

But our soccer parenting days were over, or so we thought. What little did we know…

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Just Parenting

The Pressured Child, Take 2

The Pressured ChildThe Parent Imperfect just finished a week that was even a bit wilder than usual. Dear Liz started a new job in that city where “ya’ don’t come out the way you went in.” The entire family is in for a lot of adjustments. Always aware, I responded by organizing a week in which I needed to be out of the house for seven nights in a row. It all started with a trip to the nation’s oldest public school for a meeting of the exciting, new Parent-2-Parent group, followed by a lecture by the well-known child psychologist, Michael Thompson.

Thompson, author of The Pressured Child, spoke at the school almost exactly two years ago, and he really got my attention. With Vince in the throes of making a decision about college, and Connie in the throes of eighth grade, I felt like I needed another shot of Thompson’s wisdom. The last talk could have been called, “Seeing Your Highly Competitive School the Way Your Son/Daughter Sees It: A Strategy for Getting a Parental Life,” and this one way remarkably similar.

A very good crowd was on hand for the talk in the BLS library, which says to me that lots of parents feel that they could use a little (or a lot) of help. There is nothing like sitting in the BLS library for two hours to drive home the degree of privilege inherent in being part of that school community. It is an amazing school library, the kind of library that a society with our resources ought to be able to offer every high school student.

One of Thompson’s great strengths and one of his really limiting weaknesses is that he lives in the world of therapeutic interventions. He “sees” students, often when they are having some pretty serious trouble in school. Being in that role means that he also talks to quite a number of parents. His vocation is to help people, especially young people, survive one of the most important institutions that we as humans have created for ourselves..our schools. His experience has taught him that an important part of helping young people survive school is to get their parents to back off a bit.

Thomspon talkingThompson has discovered the ancient magic of stories. He heals groups like the one gathered at BLS by telling stories about how difficult it is to be a student today, and how often we well-meaning parents make things more difficult for our children. Many of the stories this time were the same as the stories of two years ago, but that didn’t seem to bother the large part of the crowd that made it to both talks.

Early in his talk, Thompson establishes that, not only has he been a school psychologist for decades, but he has also devoted many days of his life to following children through their school day, something that no one else in the room has ever done. This “hallway cred” and his gift as a storyteller make people pay attention to him. It’s easy to see why schools invite Thompson to speak all over the world, and the man reminds the audience at least twice that his is a global phenomenon. Nothing wrong with being a phenomenon, I suppose.

About in the middle of the talk, Thompson offers his image for the school experience of children. “I have come to see school as a thirteen year hike.” What’s the most important single accessory to a hiker? Their boots, of course. And for some percentage of kids, the school boots fit perfectly from day one. They never feel a bit of pain from their shoes. These are the easy through-hikers. Others, of course, are dealing with sore feet and blisters all along the way, but they find a way to keep going, despite it all. For some kids, however, the shoes of school attendance fit so badly and the pain is such that they just can’t keep going. Those hikers leave the trail. According to Thompson, 36% of the boys who begin high school in New York City do not finish. The hike is a brilliant metaphor that many in a crowd of BLS parents relate to with ease.

Perhaps the most powerful stories are the ones he tells about his own children. This time, Thompson talked about a daughter who suffered from serious dyslexia and had a very difficult time with the academic side of school. In school, she found a way to express herself through sports and other extra-curricular activities, got through school and has ended up as the highly-recognized manager of a high end restaurant. What could be a more hopeful fable?

Pressured parentsBut it’s another story that receives the most dramatic play from Thompson. The story plays on the regular tendency of many parents, including this one, to always ask kids how school was that day. To drive home his point, Thompson talks about a young kid who accompanied his parent to a Thompson talk. When the shrink sees the kid, he offers him a chance to speak to the crowd by asking if his parents always ask him how school was that day. The kid, almost too perfect to be true, says that his mother does always ask that stupid question and of course he doesn’t really tell her the truth of his day. Ready for the punch line, the psychologist asks the kid if he would share his reason for not telling his parents how his day was. The kid pauses for dramatic effect and finally says, “There’s not that much she can do about it!”

This is the key transformative moment in the talk, and the reason schools the world over line up to pay what I can imagine is a healthy fee to have this man speak in their community. In addition to getting us to see how hard life can be for kids in school, Thompson wants parents to realize that they have little control over the school environment. Much better to get out of the chopper and focus on trying to help your kid get three “simple” things: CONNECTION, RECOGNITION AND AN INCREASING SENSE OF MASTERY. It is these three things that kids need to get out of school to prepare them for what lies before them.

It has taken Thompson a while to get there, but this is the chase…the climax of the show. If you think about it, this is kind of a mixed message. “Back off, but help your kid achieve three things that that can be very difficult to achieve in a school like BLS (and even more so in other public schools).” If your kid happens to have an IEP, or is a Black or Latino male, then you face some special challenges getting Thompson’s big three, but I guess that’s another talk.

School cultureIf I get another chance to see Michael Thompson speak, I’ll go again, but I’ll go determined to ask him why he doesn’t talk much about the culture of schools. He describes school culture, but prefers not to use that term. If he buys the idea of “school culture,” I’ll ask him to say what that means to him, and I’ll ask him to tell a healing story about a time when he saw the same damaging thing (like anxiety to the point that a kid can’t go to school) happening over and over to kids to such an extreme that he decided that, in addition to helping the victims, he had to do something about the culture that was contributing to this outcome. He could then tell the story of how he worked with others (teachers, students, parents, administrators…whoever) to make the necessary change.

I know, he’s a therapist who deals with “cases,” but I insist that a story about changing school culture would be a bit more empowering to parents who feel that the culture of their school needs to change in order for their child to achieve CONNECTION, RECOGNITION AND AN INCREASING SENSE OF MASTERY. Without at least a nod to such stories, Thompson’s message is enlightening, extremely funny, but, in the end, quite disempowering.

 

2 Comments

Filed under Boston Public Schools, Just Parenting

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?

8 Comments

Filed under Boston Public Schools, Exam Schools

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.

17 Comments

Filed under Boston Public Schools, Exam Schools

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.

12 Comments

Filed under Boston Public Schools, Exam Schools