Schools

What to know about the proposed changes to the Boston exam schools admissions process

Here's how political pressure added to an already contentious proposal.

John Tlumacki
Boston Latin Academy. John Tlumacki / The Boston Globe

Boston’s three esteemed exam high schools may soon see a major change to how students are considered for admission under a contentious policy change.

The School Committee is expected to take up a vote this Wednesday that would build upon a temporary change to the process made last year during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The move aims to increase the diversity of students admitted to the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science, Boston Latin School, and Boston Latin Academy.

Here’s what to know:

The proposal

To tackle longstanding racial disparities among the students admitted, and the challenges imposed by the coronavirus health crisis on Boston Public Schools, the School Committee voted unanimously in October to suspend the admissions test for the three exam schools for one year.

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Eligibility was instead decided based on grades, 2019 MCAS scores, and students’ zip codes. Zip codes were ranked based on median household income, and students from the lowest-income zip codes were given first choice on what school they wanted to attend.

The temporary but controversial change apparently proved effective for diversifying the student bodies at each school: Data analysis in May showed the percentages of Black, Latino, and low-income students who were accepted to each indeed went up, according to The Boston Globe.

Admission offers for white applicants dropped from 36 percent last year to 26 percent this year, while the number of accepted Asian students fell from 21 to 16 percent.

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The data was released in May at the meeting of a task force charged with recommending a permanent change to the policy, which the group revealed late last month.

Superintendent Brenda Cassellius indicated last Wednesday that school officials are considering two proposals, but a spokesman could not say which will be put forth for the School Committee to consider when members take their vote on July 14, the Boston Herald reports.

One plan calls for having 80 percent of the exam school seats be granted to students partly based on socioeconomic factors, the Globe reports. Students would be assigned among eight tiers — primarily based on census tracts — with the first seats going to students in the lowest tiers.

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Grades would make up 70 percent of the eligibility formula, while test scores would account for 30 percent. Under the current policy, both factors are considered equally for admission.

Students from schools with a high poverty rate would also be given an additional 10 points to be used in their composite score, according to the Globe.

The other 20 percent of seats, under the recommendation, would be reserved for students who rank among the highest percentiles, regardless of the tier system.

Exam Schools Task Force Recommendation Presentation to School Committee 6 30 21 by Christopher Gavin on Scribd

Last month, the recommendations task force appeared ready to submit a proposal that accounted for the socioeconomic status of qualifying students, with no 20 percent reservation.

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But members of the committee indicated last week that they faced political pressure to add the reservation for top ranking students just as the group readied to present its vision.

The political pressure

Neither co-chair of the task force revealed the source of the so-called political pressure, according to the Globe.

Tanisha Sullivan, who also leads the Boston branch of the NAACP, said only that “it is political.” She suggested the pressure came in response to concerns held by middle-class families of students, the newspaper reported.

“While we’re coming to this space to make a policy recommendation — that’s what we care about — the reality of the situation is that we are doing so in a political ecosystem,” she said, according to The Bay State Banner. “We’ve got to name it. And there are some not-so-good people out there who do not want us to achieve our charge.”

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Michael Contompasis, a former Boston Public Schools superintendent, indicated there were veiled threats should the committee not move forward with the rule including the reservation.

“I’m confused as where this pretty much anonymous backlash came in the past 24 hours,” said Simon Chernow, a member and a recent graduate of Latin Academy. “Like all of a sudden there are these ghosts that are speaking that have this power. Like I hope no one on this task force is getting threatened.”

Attorney and task force member Matt Cregor said sharply: “To the extent that there are local elected officials who are weighing in here, doing it in quiet, shame on them … for playing Boston politics in a way that doesn’t break the open meeting law.”

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The matter “disgusts me,” he added.

Several people familiar with the situation told the Banner that District 6 City Councilor Matt O’Malley told the group he had six votes against the nearly $1.3 billion school budget lined up two weeks ago. (The budget ultimately passed the day after the task force meeting in a 10-2 vote.)

O’Malley denied he pressured the group to achieve the 20 percent exemption when asked about it by the newspaper.

“It’s not as though this was some behind the scenes arm-twisting,” O’Malley told the Herald.

An online petition created by Boston school teacher and parent Sung-Joon Pai that urges the School Committee to stick to the 100 percent plan called out both O’Malley and the Boston Latin School Association by name.

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The petition tells the public to “stand up against backroom deals.”

“It’s the kind of thing people get away with when nobody’s paying attention. I just think it’s gross,” Pai told the Herald on Thursday.

The 20 percent exemption, critics argue, will serve to benefit only wealthier families with the ability to pay for tutoring and additional help for their students.

“Opponents of exam school admissions reform are working as hard as they can to ensure those with privilege remain privileged,” the online petition reads. “They’re firing up their networks and working their powerful connections behind the scenes to block this change—just as they’ve fought fair access to exam schools for decades.”

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When asked by the Herald about the accusations of interference, Boston Latin School Association President Peter Kelly told the newspaper in a statement: “The BLSA greatly respects the work of the Exam School Admissions Task Force and the independent process the task force employed in reaching an outcome that achieves the multiple objectives within its charge.”

As of Friday morning, over 920 people had signed the petition.

Task force members did not vote on the recommendations two weeks ago but noted objections to the new 80/20 proposal.

The backlash

Since the onset of last year’s temporary policy, controversy has ensued.

In February, the Boston Parent Coalition for Academic Excellence filed a lawsuit in federal court against the School Committee and Cassellius to block the rollout of the temporary policy change, the Globe reported.

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The parents argued that both parties “have imposed upon the school children of Boston a racial and ethnic classification system for entry into its most prestigious public schools” that violates the U.S. Constitution. Parents filed the lawsuit on behalf of their 14 sixth-grade students of Indian, Chinese, and white ancestry, according to the newspaper.

Their neighborhoods — Chinatown, Beacon Hill, West Roxbury, and Brighton — would all be negatively impacted by the the policy change, the lawsuit said.

But a judge upheld the policy in April, ruling that the new practice is “race neutral.”

“The education of one’s children is a matter of prime concern to any parent,” Judge William Young wrote. “Thus it is worthy of remark that the Plan the Court today upholds applies only to the 2021-2022 school year.”

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The court case recently resurfaced following the release of a series of racially-charged texts two School Committee members exchanged during the October meeting where the committee approved the temporary policy.

Members Alexandra Oliver-Dávila and Lorna Rivera, who made comments about white parents in West Roxbury, resigned when the messages were released by an unknown party.

School officials have pushed back on the notion that the text messages illustrate the new policy was racially discriminatory or biased, according to the Globe.

Through a motion, school officials said it was unlikely that the judge would have ruled differently in the case even if the text messages were provided to the court earlier this year. The district also denied the notion that it wrongly withheld.

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“Nevertheless, even if the Court were to find that fraud, misrepresentation, or misconduct occurred, the Coalition fails to prove that they were prevented from fully and fairly preparing or presenting their case,” the motion said. “The text messages at issue have no effect on the Coalition’s theory of the case.”

The eleventh-hour changes made to the policy have also received scorn from city officials.

Earlier this month, as the Boston City Council prepared to vote on the nearly $1.3 billion school budget, several councilors condemned the political pressure that had a clear impact on the policy now on the table.

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“How much longer are we going to allow political interests to come at the cost of our children’s education?” said Councilor Julia Mejia.

Councilor Ricardo Arroyo said he hoped his fellow councilors weren’t tying their budget vote to the exam school proposal, the Globe reported.

”I’ve been disturbed reading the reports from the press that the education budget may have been being held hostage for a more inequitable response to that problem,” he said.

Arroyo, Mejia, and Councilor and mayoral hopeful Michelle Wu support the 100 percent plan, according to the Herald.

While the council voted to pass the budget, Councilor Frank Baker, who voted against it, lamented how much of the recent conversation in the district has focused on the exam schools.

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“I’m not hearing about how we’re investing in low performing schools, and we’re pitting neighborhoods against each other, and quite frankly the neighborhoods that look like me look like they’re going to lose,” he said.

The next steps

The School Committee held a listening session on the proposals last Wednesday, where some parents were encouraged to hear Cassellius say the 100 percent plan was back under consideration, according to the Herald.

“My hope is that the school board will adopt the 100 percent (policy) so that it further eliminates the chance for moneyed folks and folks of privilege to game the system,” said Elena Belle White, a parent of two BPS students, the newspaper reported.

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The School Committee is slated to vote on a permanent change to the policy this Wednesday.

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