Boston Overhauls Admissions to Exclusive Exam Schools
A new policy will increase representation of Black and Latino students in the prestigious public schools, which serve as a gateway to elite colleges.,
BOSTON — Long into the night on Wednesday, parents and students waited in line to say their piece about Boston Latin School and who deserves to attend it.
Shirley Chang Wen said she arrived in this country without speaking English, and believed in raising children to work hard and succeed. Why, she asked, shouldn’t they get a spot?
Julia Mejia, a Latina city councilor, said she spent her school years working at a shoe store to help her mother pay the rent, without a spare minute for test preparation. What about students like her?
And Gabby Finocchio, a 2019 graduate who is white, said she was admitted to the school because her parents had time and money to spend on the process. In a more equitable admissions system, she might not get in, she said, but “I’m OK with that.”
After five and a half hours of emotional discussion on Wednesday night, the Boston School Committee voted unanimously to overhaul admissions to the city’s three selective exam schools, opening the way for far greater representation of Black and Latino students.
The new admissions system will still weigh test results and grades, but, following a model pioneered in Chicago, it will also introduce ways to select applicants who come from poor and disadvantaged neighborhoods.
Under the new system, the applicant pool will be divided into eight groups based on the socioeconomic conditions of their neighborhoods. The admissions team will consider applicants within each group, admitting the top students in each tier in roughly equal numbers.
“This was really a watershed moment,” said Ruthzee Louijeune, 34, the daughter of Haitian immigrants, who said she was admitted to Boston Latin School only after her father stumbled across a free test preparation course. That path, through a school that “can literally open a door to endless possibilities,” led on to Columbia University, Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Law School.
“If any of those events didn’t happen, I don’t know where I would be today,” said Ms. Louijeune, who is running for Boston’s City Council. “The world has been open to me. How do we make sure I am not an anomaly?”
The traditional admissions system, which its supporters defend as merit-based, ranked applicants according to grades and test scores. But it also gave rise to a culture of tutoring and test preparation, and resulted in incoming classes that were overwhelmingly white and Asian.
Boston has joined a long list of school districts trying to address racial inequities in its selective academic programs. The debates have divided communities, raising painful questions about whose children deserve to be admitted.
In New York City, the nation’s largest school district, a recent push to eliminate an admissions exam for its top high schools has sputtered, even as the city announced other changes to the way hundreds of selective middle and high schools choose their students.
A proposal by Mayor Bill de Blasio to get rid of the entrance exams to the city’s most elite schools, such as Stuyvesant High School, became extremely divisive, prompting accusations that he was discriminating against low-income Asian American children and pitting Asian families and Black and Latino families against one another. In the end, the State Legislature, which had to approve the change, declined to take action.
Fairfax County, Va., faced a similar challenge. In 2020, the school board agreed to eliminate the admissions test to its flagship math and science magnet school, only to face two lawsuits from families, many of them Asian American, who said the move had inflicted harm on their children.
The same divisions have emerged in Boston. Among the most passionate objections expressed on Wednesday night came from Asian American parents, who said their children were hardly all affluent, and would be unfairly disadvantaged by the new system.
Asian American students were 29.3 percent of Boston Latin School’s enrollment in 2020, despite making up 9 percent of students in the school’s district.
“When they were young, we instilled them with the idea of working very hard to be the best,” said Ms. Wen, speaking through a Cantonese translator. “There’s a misconception that we’re discriminating against others, but that’s not true, because when we came here, we had nothing. We worked hard to get what we could get.”
Judith Nee, an alumna of Girls’ Latin School, said the white students affected by the change were “firefighters and civil servants’ kids,” not the truly affluent.
“What does it get you other than depriving everyone of perhaps the one real advantage to step up in the world — by weakening the rigor of Latin?” Ms. Nee said. “I literally get sick to my stomach with the thought that we are going to alter a 350-year-old proven world-renowned pathway to a life of intellect. It’s not easy to come by for city kids.”
For decades, sixth graders across the city have crammed for an annual entrance exam, hoping to receive an invitation to Boston Latin School, the most selective of the three schools, which counts among its alumni four presidents of Harvard, four Massachusetts governors and five signers of the Declaration of Independence.
Ms. Finocchio, who entered Boston Latin School as a ninth grader, said it did not take long for her to see patterns in the neighborhoods her classmates came from — middle-class and predominantly white — and by her sophomore or junior year, she was convinced that something needed to be done about it.
“Once I realized how the system works, it was a question of, OK, when are they going to change it?” she said.
Ben Hoffman, 20, who graduated in her class, said he routinely overheard older people fretting about whether the quality of the schools would suffer, “thinking it’s going to be the worst thing ever, and ultimately change the school.” He doesn’t agree. “To some extent, I am puzzled about why so many people in that demographic think it’s going to be a problem,” he said.
It is no surprise that the change is occurring now, as Boston itself has changed.
The middle-class, predominantly white neighborhoods that fed large numbers of seventh graders into exam schools each year had resisted attempts to change admissions, said Lew Finfer, an organizer with Massachusetts Communities Action Network, who has pushed for new policies for 20 years.
But the political clout of those neighborhoods had begun to wane even before last year’s racial justice movement swept through the city, he said, while also crediting “relentless efforts” by Boston’s N.A.A.C.P. and other legal advocates for the new policies.
“There was a degree of reckoning with the George Floyd murder that made it harder to defend sacred cows that were discriminatory,” he said. “That doesn’t mean every institution changed, or every policy. But there was more pressure to deal with things.”
In 2019, voters elected a City Council that was, for the first time, dominated by women and people of color. And all four front-runners in November’s election for mayor are women of color. Among the leading candidates for mayor, only one — City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George — has objected to the change in policy, tweeting that it had been voted in hastily.
“While the plan claims to level the playing field and create improved access, it has not,” she said. “It is unclear, untested and not informed by families across the city.”
City Councilor Andrea Campbell, a Boston Latin School graduate who is also running for mayor, said in a statement that she had “heard from hundreds of parents who are excited by the change and just as many who are worried about how this new policy will impact them because they don’t see another excellent option for their student in the B.P.S. system, which I think proves that this inequitable system is failing all of us.”
Many expect the new policy to face a court challenge. But others were in the mood to celebrate.
“There’s a historical debt owed to families and students of color in Boston public schools,” said Peter Piazza, an educational researcher, describing a litany of efforts to resist desegregation of city schools, including violent riots over busing that shook the city in the 1970s.
“The so-called exam schools are one tiny part of this history,” he said. “But the access is enormously important for the students, whose lives can be changed by the opportunity. We owe them a debt. Let’s pay it at 100 percent.”
Boston’s racial tensions have always spilled out into public view when the subject turns to schools. The tug of war over exam school admissions has led to the awkward and abrupt departure of three members of the school committee.
The committee chair, Michael Loconto, resigned last fall after he was caught, during a recorded Zoom meeting, mocking the surnames of Asian American parents making public comments on the issue.
That was followed by the publication of text messages exchanged between two other members, Alex Oliver-Davila and Lorna Rivera, expressing frustration with parents from West Roxbury, whom one of them referred to as “Westie whites.”
Both Ms. Oliver-Davila and Ms. Rivera resigned, too.
Sarah Mervosh contributed reporting.