Boston Latin School is “the up escalator, the way for poor kids to make it.”
To Larry DiCara, proud alum, and president of the class of 1967, that’s what the oldest school in the nation — and the most competitive exam school in Boston — means to this city.
If upward mobility lies at the heart of Boston Latin’s mission, current student body demographics suggest some limitations on that promise. As reported last April, by the Globe’s Stephanie Ebbert, “In an urban district that is overwhelmingly Latino, black, and poor, Boston Latin stands out: Just over a quarter of students are poor and more than three-quarters are white or Asian. Of the 2,430 students enrolled at Boston Latin this year, 514 come from one neighborhood — West Roxbury. Roxbury, the heart of the inner city, is home to just 67.”
Out of those statistics come today’s headlines of racial tension and turmoil at Boston Latin. But that dynamic didn’t happen overnight. After years of benign neglect at Boston Latin, it exploded on the watch of Mayor Martin J. Walsh. He now owns the aftermath.
Resolving it requires a far more deft touch than what Walsh has so far displayed. But he’s just the latest mayor to wrestle with eternal Boston issues of race, access, and opportunity.
This year, Boston Latin became the focus of negative attention after two students posted a YouTube video on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, first reported by the Boston Herald, criticizing administrators for ignoring or dismissing complaints of racism. That ultimately triggered investigations by the School Department, the local branch of the NAACP, and US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz.
As details dripped out, Walsh couldn’t seem to decide whether the problems were pervasive enough to demand new leadership. So, he tried to walk a line between Headmaster Lynne Mooney Teta and the civil rights activists who were demanding change. Doing so pleased no one. Last week, Teta and assistant headmaster Malcolm Flynn resigned. Their supporters lashed back, embroiling Walsh in an old Boston political mess.
Fixing the politics is important to Walsh. Fixing the school should be important to everyone. To do that, it’s time to accept a leadership change at the school and move on.
But not without understanding what makes Boston Latin School great and why that greatness should be available to every Boston student who qualifies on the merits.
Academic excellence is key to Boston Latin’s brand. Admission is based on performance in fifth and sixth grades and scores on the Independent School Entrance Examination, taken in sixth grade. So students and their families have to buy into scholarship from an early age, and see it as a path to admission. But if the city’s black and Latino students don’t know Boston Latin exists, how can they go for its gold?
In return, Boston Latin must welcome everyone who earns a spot on its up escalator. Alumni from DiCara’s generation remember the school as an island of civility in a city defined by tribalism. Alumni who graduated a decade ago have different memories, including a sense of divide between white and black students. Teta and Flynn may believe they were making strides, but a more aggressive approach is necessary. Although school administrators can’t control all the tweets, instagrams, and other social media postings produced daily by more than 2,000 high school students, it should be clear there’s zero tolerance for racist language.
The next headmaster should be “someone who understands the school, understands the city,” said DiCara. “You need someone who’s already on second base.”
The next headmaster should also be someone who believes every student should know an “up escalator” runs through Boston Latin and understand what it means to ride it. That’s the most important change Walsh can oversee.Joan Vennochi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.