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Exam schools explore adding Grade 6

Some say facilities lack space to expand

Classroom space is tight at Boston's three exam schools, including Boston Latin School. The schools are looking at admitting sixth-graders. Classroom space is tight at Boston's three exam schools, including Boston Latin School. The schools are looking at admitting sixth-graders. (Bill Greene/ Globe Staff/ File)
By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / June 9, 2009
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Boston school Superintendent Carol R. Johnson is exploring the idea of admitting sixth-graders to Boston Latin and the city's other two exam schools, a change that could ease the transition from elementary school for some students but potentially create new obstacles for others seeking entrance to the elite institutions.

Some parents have complained that having the exam schools start at Grade 7 is problematic, Johnson said yesterday, because many of the district's elementary schools end at Grade 5. Parents must apply to several middle schools for their children to attend, putting children through a potentially unnecessary adjustment to a new environment for just one year.

"Right now, it's very disruptive to families," Johnson said .

But she acknowledged the downside of the idea, which is in the early stages of research. Because classroom space is tight at the schools - Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and the John D. O'Bryant School of Mathematics & Science - Johnson said one of the few options to accommodate another grade level might be decreasing the number of students in the upper grades, which would make the premier education available to fewer students.

"That could make some parents unhappy," Johnson said. "I don't know what the right decision is."

Any changes involving Boston Latin, the nation's oldest public school and one of the city's most cherished institutions, is bound to be controversial. Founded in 1635, it is more than a year older than Harvard College and boasts five signers of the Declaration of Independence among its long roster of pupils. Boston Latin has served just six classes since at least 1895, according to a Globe story that ran in December of that year, although various histories of the school seem to indicate that the tradition of serving six levels may extend back centuries.

A special committee will make a recommendation on the expansion at the exam schools by the end of this month, along with other proposals about how to provide more intensive classes to fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders across the city.

Beverly Mitchell, co-chairwoman of the Boston Citywide Parents Council, which has its offices at Latin Academy, questioned expanding the city's exam schools at a time of deep budget cuts and public worry that underperforming schools are not being improved fast enough.

"Will more money be geared toward a 6-12 Latin as opposed to bringing all schools up to par?" Mitchell said.

She also expressed concern that giving the rigorous entrance exams to a younger group of children could hinder the chances of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, because they would have one less year to catch up academically with more affluent children, whose families can afford tutors and other resources to help prepare them for the test.

No specifics have been formulated yet, including any possible retooling of the entrance exam for younger candidates and how many new teachers would be necessary.

Johnson raised the possibility of expanding the schools at an April 29 School Committee meeting, in a presentation of her school system overhaul plan. That plan aims to bolster school quality in the pursuit of getting more kids to graduation and through college.

In an interview yesterday, Johnson said she is not sure why the exam schools start at Grade 7, but suspects it is a holdover from the days when school systems nationwide ran junior high schools, which often started at that grade. Junior high schools in Boston, like many nationwide, have been replaced with middle schools, which commonly serve students in grades 6 to 8.

Johnson has been trying to reduce the number of different schools students have to attend by creating more K-8 schools and 6-12 schools. This fall, for instance, Tech Boston Academy, a Dorchester high school, will start a middle school program. A bad transition to a new school can lead students down a path of academic failure, many school leaders say.

Moriah Smith, a Latin Academy senior who is the student representative on the School Committee, said yesterday "it makes more sense to have a full middle school in the exam schools."

But at the same time, Smith, who is interested in seeing more specifics to the idea, said she wondered about the logistics of enacting such a change.

"Honestly, the classrooms are pretty full as it is," she said.

Jim McManus, a Boston school parent, said he can see why the school district would want to eliminate the limbo year for many sixth-graders awaiting entry into exam schools. A few years ago, his son left elementary school at the end of Grade 5 and enrolled the following fall at Edison Middle School only to find out in December that he had scored high enough on the entrance exams for the exam schools. The next school year, he was at Latin Academy.

"It's very difficult for a student to get acclimated and make friends and bond with teachers knowing they will only be there for a year," said McManus. "That gap year is on every parent's mind."

Nick Parker, a Boston Latin School junior, said he would have benefited academically had he had the opportunity to attend in the sixth grade. But given the fiscal crisis confronting the city, he questioned whether there was money and space to expand at Latin, which is the system's largest school at more than 2,400 students.

"We don't have the faculty, room, and resources to support the grades we have," said Parker, adding that some classes have as many as 31 students, well above district guidelines.

Lyne Vieira, co-chair of the O'Bryant Parent Council and the mother of an eighth-grader, said she worries about the difficulty some sixth-graders might encounter adjusting to a school with 12th-graders in it.

"It's traumatizing to some kids when they leave their warm, fuzzy nest at the elementary school, where they are the oldest kids," Vieira said.