A 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.
The 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 resignations. 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.
Superintendent 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.
People 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.
In 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Each 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?