The Haves and Have Mores: The Heartbreak of High School in Boston Public Schools

Over Easter Dinner this past Sunday, I was speaking with a relative of mine who mentioned his family had been put in disarray over the last month, particularly his wife, who had been brought to tears on many occasions and was quite distraught on a daily basis.

The culprit:  Boston’s exam schools.

I should have known. It is that time of the year.

For those who don’t touch the Boston Public School system, didn’t grow up in Boston or just aren’t familiar with how our antiquated system works, every spring the BPS separates the wheat from the chaff in a heartbreaking (for the majority that aren’t accepted) exercise of “getting in” to exam schools. The City has three exam schools: Boston Latin, Boston Latin Academy (formerly Girls Latin) and the O’Bryant School of Mathematics. Getting into these schools (and most will bypass the O’Bryant if chosen there, so it’s really two schools) comes down to a three-hour test on an October morning. Thousands of budding sixth graders looking for entrance into the exam school 7th grade class, and thousands more eighth graders looking for entrance into the high school, show up with high hopes.

In late February, students and parents either celebrate the future.

Or, like my relatives, they weep for the unknown.

This system in our City goes back decades and decades and it’s a pretty cruel way – and likely highly discriminatory on any number of fronts – of deciding the fate of children.

I didn’t go to any of the exam schools, but in those days there were more than a few options if you didn’t go there.

Today, for those who don’t make it “in,” and have high aspirations for college and beyond, there aren’t too many high schools where that kind of success can be cultivated. A lot of people in the public schools or at those non-exam high schools might disagree, but I’m pretty familiar with the rankings of the high schools for one reason or another.

They’re some of the lowest in the state.

Many of the high schools in Boston look like prisons, and some of the behavior in those high schools isn’t much better. I’ve had relatives whose children in the past were brutalized so often that they had more court dates in Boston Muni as a victim than they had parent teacher conferences at the school. It’s just the plain truth, unfortunately.

So then you have the mad dash to get into an exam school, where expectations are higher and discipline is better stressed – so they say. It’s almost like the rush for bread and milk prior to a snowstorm – where otherwise reasonable people begin to push and elbow, cut in line, and pull favors to get what they need for their own.

And so if you’re young’en didn’t perform well on that one test in October, such as my relative’s son didn’t, then you have to either figure out how to leverage your home to pay for private school, leave your home for the suburban schools, or mine through the non-exam high schools for some semblance of a good situation.

I would more than suppose many kids from low-income households cannot afford to take this entrance test, or simply don’t know about it. Likewise, our worst elementary schools are in the poorest areas of Boston. Therefore, you leave a huge swath of kids who have been prepared with a shaky foundation that won’t give them even a fool’s chance at getting into one of the better schools – no matter how much potential they may possess that just needs to be unlocked.

So, you have those seats in the “good” schools taken up by those who are wealthy, who have come out of private school, who are naturally brilliant, or who just lucked out by getting a scholarship into a private elementary and middle school earlier in life.

For a city that prides itself on being progressive and inclusive, the exam school system shows us to be the phony baloneys we really are. We preach about inequity, yet cheer and give off sighs of relief when “our own” benefit from the inequity. It would be laughable if we weren’t talking about the future of children, especially poor children.

But far worse than that institutional discussion is the social pressure such as my relative’s wife was feeling.

For women especially, everyone circles around their social ring when the results are announced to find out who “got in.”

If your child doesn’t make it “in” at the high school level, especially, it’s like you become an outcast. There must be something wrong with you, or how you raised your child – which is the assumption, especially among the mothers.

My relative’s wife explained to me over dessert on Sunday, that mothers whose kids are going to the Latins have gotten together for coffee, have started preliminary planning groups for fundraising and transportation, and have even had a social time at a local bar in Westie where they live.

She wasn’t invited to any of those events, though previously she had been right in the middle of it all with the other mothers.

Now they only pitied her.

“She’s the one whose son didn’t ‘get in,’” she said they whisper, as if she’s come down with a terminal disease.

It’s like that in Westie, and all over the rest of the city too.

Certainly, it’s not right, but it’s the Boston we have created over many generations.

Where’s that in all the discussion of pay equity, housing equity, gentrification and any number of progressive issues?

You won’t find it.

What you will find is that those leading those discussions, if they have kids, have found seats at one of the Latins.


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