With decisions for Boston’s Exam Schools coming up, the City Council Committee on Education held a timely hearing on March 5 regarding equity in Boston’s three exam schools: Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science.
Councilor Anissa Essaibi-George, Chair of the Committee on Education, said the hearing was to discuss what can be done to make sure students from all backgrounds can have a seat at one of the exam schools.
“All BPS students deserve an excellent, rigorous education,” said Councilor Kim Janey. Currently, the admissions policy for the exam schools includes a student’s grades from the last year and a half, as well as their score on the Independent School Entrance Examination (ISEE). Janey said that currently, there is a disadvantage for people from Boston public elementary schools, and the student body at the exam schools is “wildly different” from thr BPS student population. She said 41 percent of white students were admitted to exam schools compared with 8 percent of black students and 9.8 percent of Latinx students.
She said that the issues with the ISEE exam “have been discussed extensively,” and the test includes concepts not covered by the BPS curriculum by sixth grade. Over 60 percent of white students took the the test compared with 26 percent black and Latino students, she added.
“We should not be establishing a system that de-incentivizes parents from sending their students to our elementary schools,” Janey said. “The issue of access is very important if we are to eliminate the opportunity gaps in the City of Boston.”
City Council President Andrea Campbell said she went to five BPS schools herself, including Boston Latin School. She said that 75 percent of Boston student age population is black and Latinx, but only 40 percent of these students are represented at the exam schools. “This should not be a space where we blame the school leaders, the teachers, the principals,” she said. “This is a system issue.”
Much of the hearing focused on a panel of BPS administrators, including Interim Superintendent Laura Perille, Director of Networks Support and Training in the Office of Engagement Monica Roberts, Assistant Superintendent of Opportunity and Achievement Gaps Colin Rose, Assistant Superintendent of Equity Becky Shuster, and Ombudsperson Carolyn MacNeil. Also present were the headmasters of all three exam schools.
Monica Roberts said that there has been an increase in the number of black and Latinx students who are applying to the exam schools. Since 2014, there has been an increase in black enrollment from 16 percent to 20 percent, an increase in Latinx enrollment from 21 to 22 percent, an decrease in Asian enrollment from 24 percent to 22 percent, and a decrease in white enrollment from 38 to 37 percent.
“When we look at the data as a whole, our enrollment trends demonstrate that black and Latinx students are underrepresented,” said Becky Shuster. She said that BPS’ strategy is to “eliminate barriers by applying aggressive innovative interventions at every stage of the application,” and they must understand the data better in order to do this. She said that this year, students are given a much longer list of choices to identify their race.
“We have identified and begun to address systemic barriers at every phase of the admissions process,” she added.
Roberts said one of the challenges they’ve notices is making sure that families are aware of the opportunity to attend these exam schools. “A lot of work has been done around this,” including more “high touch outreach,” which involves individual calls to potential students. This “seems to be providing some movement in the right direction,” Roberts said.
Boston Latin Academy Headmaster Chimdi Uchendu said that BLA does neighborhood meetings as outreach to the greater communities. Boston Latin School Headmaster Rachel Skeritt said that their approach to outreach is to offer 15 tours annually with over 100 tainted student tour guides who speak over 16 languages. They also distribute flyers about the school. O’Bryant School Headmaster Tanya Freeman-Wisdom said that they hold school preview sessions, as well as student-led tours and a Q+A session. They also have a summer orientation for students who have been admitted and she said by doing this, “we haven gotten a couple more students to attend the O’Bryant.”
Colin Rose talked about the issues with the registration process for the ISEE. He said that the white percentages outweigh the black and Latinx registration. He said a solution is to pre-register around 1,000 students based on GPA and either their English Language Arts or math MCAS score. Shuster said that this year, the ISEE will be administered during the day at every BPS school with a sixth grade in order to maximize the number of students who take the test.
Rose also talked about the disproportionality in those who are preparing for the test. Boston has a free preparation program, the Exam School Initiative program, and he said that only 25 percent of those taking advantage of that program are black and Latinx. “We set upon a path to dramatically expand the access and change the demographics of that program,” he said, and extended recruitment to all elementary schools. He also discussed disparities in the grading system across and outside of BPS schools.
Shuster said that another disproportionality is that some black and Latinx students opt to not attend even though they are admitted. She said that the “challenges regarding the racial climate in the Boston Latin School” would maybe cause students to opt out, as well as “invitations to highly competitive independent schools.”
Perille said that this conversation is important to have to better increase access. “A number of these steps are practically underway,” she said. It’s “a hopeful sign that the broader community engages in a conversation about how do we want to approach our exam schools.” She said they will be “putting a lot of energy” into rolling out the ISEE in schools this fall “to make sure we get it right” and there are no unintended consequences. “We welcome the conversation and question,” Perille said.