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Procedures roil faculty at Boston Latin Academy

In a letter sent to the interim superintendent, dozens of teachers at Boston Latin Academy have raised a series of issues.

Barry Chin/Globe Staff

In a letter sent to the interim superintendent, dozens of teachers at Boston Latin Academy have raised a series of issues.

Final exams are done. Students are anxiously counting down the hours until the school year ends Wednesday. But turmoil is engulfing Boston Latin Academy, one of the city’s illustrious exam schools, long considered a golden ticket to a college education.

In a letter sent to the interim superintendent, dozens of teachers raised a series of issues, accusing the headmaster and other administrators of lowering academic standards, penalizing those who refuse to comply, and otherwise “creating fear and insecurity amongst faculty.”

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They say, for instance, that teachers have been told to give out more As and Bs and swap out some classical literature for pop fiction. Often when teachers refuse to abide or raise too many questions, the letter stated, administrators seem to have targeted them for removal, stepping up classroom observations and writing evaluations that pick apart performance in nuanced detail and offer little constructive feedback to improve their craft. Particularly alarming, they say, is that some administrators appear to be developing a pattern, whether intentional or not, of pushing out older teachers and black teachers.

The faculty is scheduled to meet with high-ranking school district officials Wednesday, more than three weeks after dozens of faculty sent the seven-page letter, complete with an appendix of documentation about a half-inch thick.

This marks the second time in two years the faculty has sent a letter to school district officials seeking resolution to these issues. The Globe has obtained copies of both letters, without the pages that contained the teachers’ signatures.

“We write this letter in the hopes that you will help us to get Boston Latin Academy back on a path of excellence,” the teachers wrote in the latest letter, dated May 31.

Boston Latin Academy, on Townsend Street in Dorchester, opened in 1878 as an all-girls college-preparatory school. It has long existed in the shadow of the better known Boston Latin School, which originally educated only boys. Both schools went coeducational in the 1970s, and students must pass an entrance exam to gain admission. Latin Academy educates about 1,700 students.

‘We will keep our conversations with the authors private . . . ’

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The dispute is the latest controversy involving the district’s evaluation system, implemented two years ago to provide more rigorous oversight of teachers and administrators. Data released by the School Department last year raised the prospect of potential bias, indicating that teachers who were older, black, or Hispanic were more likely to receive low marks.

During the last school year at Boston Latin Academy, the only unsatisfactory rating was given to a black teacher, while another black teacher received a “needs improvement,” the next step up. There were a total of 12 black teachers evaluated at the school that year. An Asian teacher and two white teachers also received a “needs improvement rating.” All five were 50 or older.

In a statement, Boston school officials sidestepped complaints about the possibility of discrimination at Latin Academy when responding to written questions from the Globe about whether the school was targeting teachers who were black or older with poor performance reviews or removal. Instead, they talked about the overall trends in educator evaluation data districtwide, saying “there are patterns we do not like to see.”

“This is not a trend unique to a single school, to Boston or even education, but it is one that we must address in a transparent, equitable, and deliberate manner,” the statement read. “We are reviewing the data and the underlying issues with our Office of Equity, which monitors our recruiting efforts and all hires. We are also having open discussions about the potential impact of bias in evaluation.”

But the statement continued, “recruiting highly qualified teachers who reflect the diversity of the student population has been a priority for the district.” The school district has also said it is training evaluators to be aware of any unintentional biases.

Interim Superintendent John McDonough declined repeated requests for an interview, as recently as Monday, through a spokesman. In a statement, McDonough said he wanted to keep the matter private.

“This letter was sent to us in confidence,” McDonough said. “We will keep our conversations with the authors private as we engage in productive discussions to move the school forward.”

Latin Academy’s headmaster, Emilia Pastor, also declined comment when reached by phone Monday morning, her second day back to work after taking a three-month maternity leave. Pastor took over running the school on an interim basis in 2009, ultimately gaining the permanent post.

In an e-mail to the Globe, she said, “I would like to respect that individual evaluations are confidential, and my teachers expect me to keep our conversations about them confidential.”

Among the issues the teachers are raising, race is arguably the most sensitive. Latin Academy has long been out of compliance with a federal court order that requires at least 25 percent of the faculty at the city’s three exam schools to be black. In fact, the percentages have largely been dropping in recent years.

Of the school’s 93 teachers during the 2012-13 school year, just 13 percent were black, according to the most recent state data available. That is down from 18.8 percent five years earlier. The school, however, is in compliance with thresholds for other racial and ethnic minorities.

Elizabeth Redley, an English teacher who is black, said the school administration put her under the microscope soon after she arrived two years ago. She said her first mistake was holding students after school for misbehaving without giving parents advance notice, as required. She said her relationship with the school’s administrators only deteriorated from there.

“When you are black and in a professional setting, you feel like you need to work harder and prove you are doing your job, but that’s not valued at Boston Latin Academy,” said Redley.

Over the last two years, five black teachers from Latin Academy were not rehired, representing half of all those who were not asked to return, according to data provided by the School Department. In previous years, however, there were no black teachers in this category.

Some teachers say the numbers tell only part of the story: the experiences of so-called provisional teachers who are new to the system. There are also veteran teachers, they say, who have been pushed out.

A case in point, they say, is a black music teacher who arrived at the school in fall 2012, transferring from another school. The relationship between the adminsitration and the teacher, who had been in the Boston school system since the 1990s, was contentious from the start, the teachers said, claiming she was subjected to unacceptable public humiliation.

On Feb. 5, 2013, notes that the teacher’s supervisor took during a classroom observation appeared on the back of school announcements that were stuffed inside teacher mailboxes. The observation notes identified the teacher by name and at one point ridiculed the teacher for singing a question to her students, saying the approach was “juvenile,” according to a copy obtained by the Globe.

A few months later, the teacher left the school.

In its statement, the School Department said an office staff member accidentally used the back of the classroom observation notes to make copies of the school announcements, thinking it was scrap paper, saying “both the staff member and the school leader apologized to the teacher the next day.”

“Administration would never and has never knowingly released any portion of a teacher’s evaluation for any reason,” the department said.

The music teacher, reached by phone last week, declined to comment on the advice of legal counsel.

The issues around lowered academic expectations tend to center around the English and math programs. In their May 31 letter, teachers said they have been told not to teach vocabulary or grammar to students, that junior and senior essays require no research, and that there are no history textbooks. The school’s administrators place too much emphasis on having students work in groups, they said, rather than receiving instruction from teachers.

Faculty expressed concern that the school’s standing in the US News & World Report ratings has dropped to 15th in Massachusetts, while another exam school, the O’Bryant School of Math and Science, has surged past them to ninth. Boston Latin School is number one.

“We are at best at this point treading water,” said one teacher speaking on the condition of anonymity, fearing reprisal.

Latin Academy, however, remains an academic heavyweight on the MCAS. All of its 10-graders, for instance, scored advanced or proficient in English, math, and science in spring 2013 on the MCAS, the second time in the last three years.

Related:

AP classes: A problem for Massachusetts high schoolers?

Data: Student participation in AP classes

Where more AP classes make sense

Mass. student AP test results by school

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.
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