Boston Latin's racial problems reflect US school resegregation

The resignation this week of the principal is the latest twist in a federal investigation of racism at one of America's most prestigious public schools. 

Brian Snyder/Reuters/File
Teacher Elizabeth Moguel poses for a photograph with her seventh grade Latin class at Boston Latin School in Boston in 2015. Black enrollment at the selective public school has fallen from 22 percent to 9 percent in 20 years.

When the principal of America’s oldest school announced her surprise resignation, it was a reminder of a problem far bigger than one school – the growing resegregation of American education.

After months of pressure over the institution’s handling of racially charged incidents, Boston Latin School’s (BLS) Lynne Mooney Teta stepped down on Tuesday after nine years at the helm.

The incident that garnered the heaviest media attention and which is currently under investigation by the United States Attorney General’s office, involved a student who was not black threatening to lynch a black female student and using a racial slur.

What followed exacerbated the situation, bringing to the surface deeper issues at the school. The administration didn't inform the girl’s parents. The parents found out much later. Multiple civil-rights groups complained racism was being soft-pedaled at the school. A black student-activist group, BLS Black, made a splash when it released a YouTube video saying some classrooms had racially insensitive dynamics and racial slurs were used in the hallways.

Ms. Teta sent a resignation letter to the school noting her encouragement at the school community’s efforts to combat “racism and discrimination,” but also acknowledging more had to be done. In a more pointed letter to Superintendent Tommy Chang on Wednesday, she expressed frustration at the way the school and its efforts had been “unfairly judged.”

Overblown or not, how Boston Latin, a prestigious public exam school once known for its racial diversity, reached this point in many ways reflects the broader decline of racial diversity across the American school system and the problems that come with it. By 2009-10, some 38 percent of black students attended schools where 90 percent or more of the students were nonwhite, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That's up from 33 percent in 1980-81. The numbers are more dramatic for Latinos: 29 percent then; 43 percent by 2009-10. At the same time, achievement gaps are often widening as Latino and black students lag their white and Asian counterparts. 

“We have five decades of research at this point that show that it’s a huge advantage for low-income students to attend mixed-income schools and that middle-class students in those schools have high academic performance throughout and their scores aren’t harmed,” says Halley Potter, a fellow at The Century Foundation and co-author of a report on the subject.

Selective public schools could do a better job, activists say.

The decline of diversity

For Rashaun Martin, a BLS alum who graduated in 1997 and later taught at the school, the sheer number of black students in the mid-1990s did a lot to mitigate racism and enrich the school and its national reputation.

“Even if there were some issues … the numbers were large and I think we did a lot to police each other,” says Mr. Martin, who is currently the social studies supervisor for Haverhill, Mass., public schools.

“The school benefited from the fact the sports teams were better, the choirs were better, the clubs were better,” he says.

He notes his strong sense of loyalty to the school and does not think BLS has a systemic problem with racism or that Teta should necessarily have stepped down because of it, although he respects her decision as an independent one.

Back when Martin graduated, around the time a federal appeals court struck down affirmative action for high schools in states including Massachusetts and New York, black representation at BLS stood at 21.8 percent; for the 2015-16 school year, it stands at 8.6 percent. That leaves the school completely out of sync with the highly diverse Boston school district in which it sits.

Knocking on doors

Early after federal judge’s decision to end affirmative action in the late 1990s, which demanded a 35 percent racial quota at Boston Latin, Martin, then a teacher at BLS, dug his heels in. 

Martin was part of a team of volunteers including parents and staff who actively went out, sometimes as much as five times a week to poorer minority suburbs like Dorchester. They would knock on doors and hold information sessions informing parents that their children were eligible to test to get into BLS.

Sometimes, Martin says, he would be dispelling the most simple misconceptions: “Isn’t it a private school?” or “Where is it?”

The fall in diversity is also somewhat tied to the testing to get in. Currently, getting into Boston Latin is based entirely on student grades and the Independent School Entrance Examination, the test often used for entrance into private schools. But students from schools in low-income Boston neighborhoods such as Mattapan or Dorchester take the ISEE in much lower numbers than their suburban counterparts.

Similar problems exist at many of the other 165 or so selective entrance-exam schools around the nation, from New York to Chicago to California. In theory they are open to the best and brightest of all students within their districts, but often they end up with an overrepresentation of white and Asian students because they rely on test scores and academic performance to admit students.

A different model

What can be done? Education researchers suggest systemic change plus a more active outreach from schools like Boston Latin to increase diversity.

In New York, entrance to selective public schools is generally exclusively test based. However, Chicago’s changes to its admissions policies, after its own roughly 20-year desegregation law was scrapped by a judge in 2009, may present a potential model for more systemic change.

Chicago’s system is complicated, says Jessica Hockett, an education consultant and co-author of “Exam Schools: Inside America’s Most Selective High Schools." But when it comes to gaining entrance to the city’s top exam schools taking socioeconomics into account is one legally sound way schools try to increase diversity while circumnavigating the illegality of an individual student’s race.

The Chicago School District often uses certain types of census data of different areas, such as parental income or education levels to come up with minimum quotas for exam schools in the city. In some instances, this has helped mitigate trends of socioeconomic segregation, which often reflects racial lines. 

“Jones College Prep is the most diverse [in Chicago] – when I say diverse I mean 30 [percent] white, 30 black, 30 Hispanic,” Dr. Hockett says.

There are some signs of progress in Boston, too. The long-running Exam School Initiative, a summer and fall ISEE-prep program for children from underserved areas, recently expanded its enrollment from 450 to 750.

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