Luis Ramos Soto can’t stop worrying about math.
With the biggest test of his 11-year life looming, he hasn’t yet mastered how to solve algebraic equations or find the length of a triangle’s hypotenuse. He hadn’t learned either one at the James W. Hennigan K-8 School in Jamaica Plain, but both are likely to show up on the test.
Over the last three months, Luis has pretty much given up his PlayStation. And YouTube, once an oasis of comic relief, is now reserved for instructional videos about math.
He’s been working hard, but at this final exam prep session in October 2019, Luis sits nervously spinning a beaded necklace on his finger. When an instructor asks the assembled sixth-graders if they feel unsure about the test, Luis’s hand shoots into the air.
After all, the stakes are high: This is about getting into Boston Latin School.
Luis is vying for an invitation to one of America’s best and most respected public schools, which also happens to be one of its most competitive. In many ways, his very future depends on how well he performs on this single test: Will he be invited to an elite institution that puts him on a path to a top college and professional success? Or will he wind up at one of the city’s many struggling schools, where his future is likely to be less rosy?
Only about 17 percent of the more than 2,800 Boston sixth-graders who take the Independent School Entrance Exam will be invited to Boston Latin, and many are considerably more prepared than Luis.
Take Isabella Connelly-Dow, or Izzi, who has a very different set of worries as she preps just down the hall from Luis this Saturday morning. Math she has under control. In fact, Izzi has academic advantages most other 11-year-olds can only dream of: a mother who had quit her job to focus on her; a private school with a “placement team” that exists to help students get into top high schools; and a tutor who coaches Izzi on vocabulary, her weak point.
But just 10 days earlier, Izzi had suffered a concussion while trying to catch a football at school. Her head throbs as she sits in the prep session, especially when she moves her eyes. Izzi’s doctor cautioned that she might have to miss the November test altogether, putting her dream of getting into Boston Latin at risk.
Ryah St. Brice, a bright 12-year-old from Dorchester, is healthy, but decidedly less ready for the test than Izzi. In fact, Ryah had barely heard of the exam schools before she decided to take the big test. She had missed all of these city-sponsored prep sessions because of a family conflict and didn’t know that this last session was even happening.
So Ryah prepares mostly alone. She has attended some after-school study sessions organized by teachers at her school, but otherwise she studies at home. She pushes herself to continue in the evenings, reviewing test-taking strategies like skipping questions she has no idea how to answer. Sometimes Ryah’s father, a movie theater supervisor, affectionately asks his daughter why she is working so hard.
With just days left until the exam, Ryah sits at the dining table in her family’s three-decker apartment, trying to remember all the knowledge she has crammed into her head.
I just need to relax, she tells herself.
But it is hard to stop her mind from racing.
These three sixth-graders know only too well that they are in a potentially life-altering competition, one that will end with an invitation or a rejection in March. It isn’t going to be easy. Luis and Ryah are at a clear disadvantage in trying to win acceptance to a school that has long struggled to increase its number of Black and Latino students, though Izzi has her own very real health concerns as well.
But one thing is clear: It is unlikely all three will win slots at Boston Latin. No matter how hard they study, the risk of heartbreak lies ahead.
Benjamin Franklin. Ralph Waldo Emerson. Leonard Bernstein.
Since its founding close to 400 years ago, Boston Latin has educated some of the nation’s most distinguished people, including eight governors, five signers of the Declaration of Independence, and four Harvard presidents. Some — like Franklin — are so famous they require no further description (though it must be noted Franklin dropped out).
Although Latin’s roots are decidedly Brahmin, its student body diversified during the second half of the 20th century, as Latin began to serve a new purpose: vaulting the children of low-income families into the middle class. Getting in is like winning a free private school education.
But first they have to get in.
Over the past nine months, Globe reporters followed a small group of students of vastly different means and backgrounds as they vied for seats at one of the city’s three elite exam schools: Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science. For most of the kids, the highly competitive Boston Latin School was the prized goal.
At Latin, students can choose from roughly 30 Advanced Placement classes — in subjects including music theory, statistics, and Chinese. Few of the city’s non-exam schools offer even a third as many. The school’s sprawling Harry V. Keefe Library boasts an archive room, classrooms, and numerous endowed book acquisition funds. Outside of class, Latin students can choose from a range of extracurricular activities: science and math teams, jazz band, classics league, hockey, volleyball, and fencing, to name but a few.
Latin also enjoys a level of community financial support unheard of at other Boston schools. While some of Boston’s public high schools struggle to find parents even willing to serve on a parent council, Latin’s alumni association employs a full-time staff and boasts an endowment of nearly $60 million.
The yawning gap in resources shows up clearly in results: Latin outpaces the district in nearly every performance measure, starting with the fact that almost all students graduate. Nearly 80 percent of graduates then go on to earn a post-secondary degree within six years, more than double the district-wide rate. While Latin Academy and the O’Bryant also boast high graduation and college-going rates, they operate in the shadow of Boston Latin.
Luis describes the benefits of a Latin education this way: “You would learn more. You’d have the chance to get into a better college, and then you would get a better job.”
The odds of getting in, though, vary considerably depending on where students live, what elementary schools they attend, and how much time and money their parents are willing to spend. And while the student population at Latin Academy and the O’Bryant reflect broad district demographics, Latin remains woefully out of step: In a school system where the vast majority of students are Black or Latino, Latin remains overwhelmingly white and Asian.
Based on their educational backgrounds alone, Izzi, Ryah, and Luis faced starkly different odds. At Izzi’s private school in Newton, the vast majority of graduates are accepted or waitlisted at the school of their choice. But at Luis’s public K-8, the Hennigan in Jamaica Plain, the odds weren’t nearly as good: In one recent year, just 35 percent of applicants earned spots at an exam school.
And then at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. K-8 School in Dorchester, where Ryah is a student, the exam schools can feel almost impossibly out of reach. A few years ago, just one student out of the 16 who applied to an exam school was accepted, according to a 2017 report by a civil rights coalition.
Boston school officials have tried in recent years to address inequities in the admissions process. Administrators are seeking a new entrance test that’s free of bias against Black and Latino students and is more aligned with what’s actually taught in public schools. Previously, they added roughly 350 seats for underrepresented students to the summer test-prep program, and this year for the first time they administered the entrance exam at every city school. (It was previously offered on one Saturday at a limited number of locations.)
But it’s unclear whether the efforts at fairness have paid off, at least at Latin. The number of Black sixth-graders invited to attend declined from 41 in 2019 to 33 this year, even though the number of Black students taking the test jumped dramatically. The number of Latino sixth-graders invited to Latin did increase from 54 last year to 60 in 2020. But the total number of Latino test takers went up far more — from 584 to 988 — so the students’ overall success rate actually dropped.
Of course, low-income students and children of color continue to face countless roadblocks as they pursue their education, only some of which are within the school district’s control. Many of the other obstacles reflect the fractured, uneven paths the city’s children must navigate as they pursue that elusive idea we call the American Dream.
For two weeks, Luis and Izzi rise early to travel to Boston Latin’s campus in the Fenway, where they drill for hours on prefixes, root words, and the fastest way to solve an algebraic equation. Their summer is effectively over, but they are among the lucky ones: Just 775 students, roughly a quarter of the district’s sixth-graders, attend the summer boot camp in advance of the exam school test.
Luis is proud to be in such elite company (it’s “very cool,” as he puts it). His mother, Madelyn Soto, is even prouder. As she drops Luis off on her way to work as an administrative coordinator at Suffolk University, she feels like her prayers have been answered.
The daughter of immigrants from Latin America, Madelyn has just one child — and she almost lost him. Luis had been born three months premature, just 1½ pounds and unable to breathe on his own. Doctors feared he wouldn’t survive. But Madelyn prayed, promising God her son would make a difference.
“He wasn’t born a regular baby,” she says. “He’s here to do great things.”
For the test prep boot camp, Izzi and her mother, Samantha Connelly, take the Green Line to the Latin campus, where a towering statue honoring the school’s Civil War dead keeps watch over all who enter, including some kids shedding tears of anxiety. Izzi is decidedly less excited than Luis about studying on a warm August day. She’s here because her mother insisted.
“I really didn’t want to go at first, but I did it anyway,” Izzi recalls. She would rather have had two more weeks of vacation.
But Boston Latin is in Izzi’s blood. Her grandfather, Eli Dow, a Lebanese immigrant from Roxbury, graduated from the school, went on to Harvard, and became a doctor. Eli’s son Charles, Izzi’s father, grew up to become a doctor, too.
After Izzi’s birth, Sam quit her career to raise her only child. And when she and Charles divorced, Izzi became Sam’s singular priority. They live in the Back Bay, where Izzi’s art decorates their condo. Both parents, who remain close friends, have tried to give Izzi every opportunity she could imagine. Izzi has climbed the Great Wall of China (“Sooooo long,’’ she says), summered in England, and traveled to Paris and Egypt, where she visited the Valley of the Kings. She’s been on numerous sports teams, and has taken violin lessons since she was 5.
Now Izzi and her mom are about to put the 11-year-old’s impressive resume to the test. “Boston Latin is where she wants to go,” Sam says. “Ultimately, this is her decision.”
While Luis and Izzi study in a Latin classroom, Ryah is trying to make the most of the end of her summer.
Ryah’s father, Reginald St. Brice, had received an invitation for her to attend the boot camp, but he opted in July to send her to a five-week s
cience program on Thompson Island in Boston Harbor, where she got to explore salt marshes for marine life. Besides, much of the family’s attention was taken up by Reggie’s early August wedding. Ryah didn’t even know about the boot camp invitation when she returned from Thompson Island on August 9, three days before the program started.
Reggie has every confidence in Ryah’s ability to succeed in whatever she does. She’s always been a fighter, he explains. As a toddler she did not speak to anyone but him for about two years. Everyone was worried, but not Reggie. “I always felt she would speak in her own time,’’ he says. “And look at her now.”
Sharp, diligent, and studious, Ryah is a B+ student at her school, always sitting up front and listening closely to her teachers. In her spare moments, she seems to always be reading. So as Ryah started the sixth grade, Reggie did not worry much about whether his daughter would get into an exam school.
“To me, it doesn’t matter where she goes to school,’’ he says. “Ryah is going to do well regardless of where she ends up.”
The school bus hisses and heaves to the corner of Charles and Beacon streets on a cool afternoon, spilling Izzi and her friend near the front doors of the famous Cheers restaurant on Beacon Hill. Izzi’s mom and the family dog, Max, are there to greet her, but she’s too engrossed in conversation with her friend to notice much.
Since the start of school, Sam has been focused on keeping Izzi on top of her studies for the exam school test. “What does ‘torpid’ mean?’’ Sam asks, trying unsuccessfully to get the girls’ attention.
She presses on. “How do you use ‘lament’ in a sentence?’’ That elicits an eye roll from her daughter, though she eventually offers the correct answer.
Sam’s goal is to quiz Izzi on 20 words before they get home. They will go over another 20 at dinner. Izzi, a straight-A student at The Chestnut Hill School, aces math. But vocabulary is a struggle. Sam has bought her daughter several workbooks and written out 300 words on flashcards.
“What is the meaning of ‘desolate’?” Sam asks, as they walk past the Public Garden, blooming with asters and hydrangeas.
The two girls continue to chat. Sam tries again.
“What’s ‘belligerent’?’’ she asks, attempting a word that Izzi has had trouble remembering. Izzi flashes a give-it-a-rest-mom look.
Just 16 words to go.
Luis is getting ready, too, attending a Saturday morning refresher course at Latin aimed at sharpening his test-taking abilities. That afternoon, he heads across town to a light industrial area in South Boston to hone a very different skill.
At Peter Welch’s Gym on Dorchester Avenue, a row of heavy punching bags hangs from an iron rod that spans the length of the room. The propulsive wail of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” is punctuated by shouted commands and the slap of glove leather. A trainer leads Luis’s class through a foundational combination: Jab. Pivot. Hook.
Boxing does not come naturally to Luis. He’s a gentle boy, drawn more to basketball, video games, and math. His favorite pets are dogs, because, he says, “They’re smart, they’re compassionate, they’re friendly, and they have emotions, too.” But his mother signed Luis up for classes at the beginning of the summer, when she discovered another boy was bullying him as they played PlayStation online, urging Luis to kill himself.
“My heart just dropped,” Madelyn says. “Luis just gave me this blank look.”
In many respects, Luis is precisely the type of student Boston is hoping to help by adding more seats to its August boot camp. He is gifted and hard-working, but he also doesn’t have many of the advantages students from more affluent families enjoy.
He lives with his mother and aunt in a modest three-bedroom apartment in Roxbury, where sirens often scream down the busy stretch of road below. Madelyn can only help her son so much — Googling definitions, cueing up algebra videos on YouTube, and checking Luis’s answers in the back of his workbook. “I encourage him,” she says. “He knows way more math than me.”
Some nights, mother and son work together well past 10 o’clock, but Madelyn knows the toughest is yet to come. “The closer we get to the exam, the more intense it’s going to be,” she says. “He’s gonna go hard.”
Luis is committed to the process, too—though maybe not quite to the level of his mother. If he didn’t get in, “it wouldn’t be like my whole life is over,” he says. “I wouldn’t be really mad and hate myself.”
But for Madelyn, Latin means something more. It represents Luis’s pathway to a college degree and, perhaps, a springboard to the middle class so he can give back.
If Luis graduates from college, it would mean “we made it, that he made it,” she says. “He needs to break chains.”
The first time Ryah heard about Boston Latin, back in fifth grade, she thought it might be a school where students learned an ancient language. But when her sixth-grade teacher, Jessica Lider, explained to the class in September 2019 about exam schools — and assured her students that they were smart enough to get in — Ryah was intrigued.
The King K-8 is among the lowest-performing schools in Massachusetts, judging by Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test results. Eighty percent of its students are economically disadvantaged.
But the school has worked diligently to improve its academic programming, and teachers like Lider have been a guiding light for their students, offering after-school workshops to help kids who want to take the exam school test.
“Our kids . . . are brilliant, and they all would benefit from these rigorous opportunities,” Lider says. “Ryah is very thoughtful. She’s very organized. She’s a reader. . . . She did not hesitate to sign up [for the exam school prep]. She’s not afraid to try new things. She was excited to do it.”
So Ryah tucked the permission slip for the after-school workshops into her backpack and made sure her father signed it as soon as he got home.
Reggie, a Haitian immigrant who has lived in Boston for most of his 50 years, has come a long way since he got out of prison 14 years ago for a shooting. He doesn’t like to talk about those long-ago years, preferring to focus instead on the new life he has built since. He’s a better man, a family man. And having Ryah, his bespectacled little princess, was the best thing he has ever done.
“She’s like everything I ever wanted in a daughter, my biggest accomplishment,’’ he says. “When they say former convicts can’t raise good kids, I say here’s a story for you. I’ve proved them wrong.”
Reggie did not read the permission slip. He seldom reads anything Ryah brings home for his signature, figuring if his daughter wants to do something to boost her education, he is going to support her, no questions asked.
Each evening when Ryah gets home, she kicks off her shoes, tosses her backpack in her room, and puts on her robe. When she gets through her homework, she opens her test prep workbook and tries to sort through a few more questions before finally calling it a night. She’s running out of time.
You can do this. You can do this, she repeats to herself, blinking hard under her glasses.
A month before the ISEE test day at her private school, Izzi’s best-laid plans nearly fall apart. While playing catch with friends, she trips over a bench and lands on the back of her head. She has a concussion.
Izzi’s doctor limits her to just a half day of school for at least two weeks and plenty of quiet time until the worst of the pain subsides. She feels dizzy and her head throbs in response to noises or sunlight. She spends two days after the accident in bed simply trying to stay still. For the rest of October, her test prep all but grinds to a halt. “For a long time, I did not study at all,” she says.
She has to put her after-school test and tutoring sessions on hold, limiting herself to the Saturday-morning boot camps that had started in the summer.
As Izzi focuses on recovery, Sam worries that the concussion will derail her daughter’s health and her ability to sit for the test. She doesn’t know what to do. At first, she decides Izzi can’t take the test. But then Sam tries — without success — to see if Boston officials will give Izzi extra time to take the exam.
Later in the month, Sam takes Izzi to an open house at the $26,000-a-year Newman School, near their Back Bay home. They hadn’t been considering the private school, but after Izzi’s injury put Boston Latin in doubt, all options are on the table.
A few days later, Izzi and Sam return to Latin for the final refresher course before the November test. Arriving just before the sessions start, Izzi, clinging to her backpack and sunglasses, darts off toward the building. Sam calls her back for a proper sendoff.
As Izzi walks toward Latin’s front doors, Sam finally makes up her mind. “I’m going to let her take the test,” she says. “Why not give it a shot?”
It’s 8:30 on a Wednesday night in late October, and Luis is starting to flag. The big test is just two weeks away, and the 11-year-old has been at it for hours. He sits at the kitchen table, puzzling over a battery of math problems veiled as stories: “Fifteen people are going to contribute $10 each to the office party . . .”
Like virtually every sixth-grader in Boston public schools, Luis was unfamiliar with algebra questions before starting test prep. But algebra accounts for a significant portion of the math section on the exam, putting BPS students at a distinct disadvantage. To give their children a fighting chance, parents and caregivers are forced to rely on free test-prep programs, or, if they can afford them, costly tutors.
“I just feel like everyone deserves a fair chance,” says Madelyn, who initially considered a tutor but quickly realized the price was out of reach. “It was like fifty bucks an hour.”
She’s been hovering nearby all night, feeding Luis pasta, checking his work, and nudging him on.
“I like how you’re writing down your work here,” she’d said at one point, praising his penmanship. “I have to take a picture of this!”
But now Luis is resting his chin heavily on his hand, a No. 2 pencil lying on the notebook before him. He knows he should be writing down his work. It’s one of the test-taking strategies he learned at test prep. But it’s getting late, and Luis is moving slowly as he counts out a problem on his fingers, eventually writing down an answer and flipping to the back of the book.
“Ah!” he yelps. “I got it wrong!”
“You’re supposed to write it down,” Madelyn scolds. “You can’t do that, OK? Especially when it comes to the exam.”
But after hours spent studying, Luis is tired and feeling stressed. “My brain doesn’t show it,” he says, “but my brain doesn’t consult with my other nerves.”
On November 6, the night before the test, Ryah sits quietly at her kitchen table in Dorchester reading her new favorite book, The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali. Her 8-year-old brother, Averey, is doing his homework, massaging his head with his hand, while Reggie cleans up after cooking tacos.
Usually, after dinner, all three would tangle in a tickling session, a needed break after a stressful day. But with the test the next morning, Ryah is in no mood for horseplay.
She has settled into what she calls her “own space,” a quiet internal oasis where she clears her mind even if other people are around. For Ryah, that means reading. She tries not to think of algebra and other topics she wishes she had more time to study. It’s too late now.
Lately, both Ryah and her dad have been questioning the fairness of the exam school test, especially for students who didn’t have enough time to prepare or who can’t hire a tutor.
“There are people who just pay and they get in,” Ryah says. “That’s what I find unfair.”
After a few minutes, Averey begins egging on his father and the two eventually end up tumbling into the living room, Averey giggling wildly.
“I want no part of this,’’ Ryah says, shutting her book and disappearing into her bedroom. But a few minutes later, she reemerges and leaps onto Reggie’s back, squealing.
The three finally collapse on the sofa, exhausted. When she recovers, Ryah quietly prepares for bed, all the while thinking, Tomorrow is test day.
Luis rises early the morning of the test, sitting down to a breakfast of waffles, turkey bacon, and fruit on the side. He’d rated his nervousness the night before as a 4 on a scale of 10, but he also had to admit he’d had plenty of time to prepare, in part because his teacher had recently been assigning less homework.
As he sits down to take the test, Luis feels confident, after capping months of study with a good night’s sleep. He’s delighted that the name of a classmate appears multiple times in test materials.
He moves swiftly through each section, skimming some of the reading parts. A few math problems catch him off guard, but overall he comes away feeling pretty good.
“I’m proud of myself,” he says that evening. “I finished every question.”
That weekend, Luis goes out to eat with his mom, gets a haircut, and, finally, spends hours on his PlayStation.
Then comes the months-long wait. His grades — which account for half the exam school equation — hadn’t been great that first term. They improved the following quarter, but Luis fears the damage is done.
“To get into BLS you [have] to get, like, all A’s and stuff,” he says.
He figures he has a shot at getting into the O’Bryant, maybe even Latin Academy. But Boston Latin is feeling like a long shot.
Ryah scans her homeroom — Number 326 at the King K-8 School — taking in the 24 other nervous faces. It’s the day of the big test. At least two students start to panic, until the teacher coaxes them back to the test.
Ryah remains composed as she sits in her usual position at the front of the class, her resolute face never betraying the nervousness brewing inside her.
When she woke up that morning, she began repeating, almost chant-like: “Today is the day. I got this.” But now, her heart is racing. She tries to steady her trembling hands. Oh my gosh. Today is the day, she says to herself.
During the three-hour test, Ryah finds herself relying on the advice to skip questions rather than waste time on them, like the algebraic equations she hadn’t studied at school. But, after a bathroom break midway through, she turns a corner and begins to answer more questions.
Afterward, though, she finds it hard to shake the worry that she left too many questions blank. She realizes that missing the summer boot camp at Latin put her at a disadvantage.
“Other people had this camp in the summer to practice,’’ she says later. “I only had like five weeks to do this. They have more knowledge than me. Like, how am I supposed to do this, with only five weeks of knowledge?”
Ryah’s stepmother, Bonita, wants to give her hard-working stepdaughter some time to celebrate afterward, so she takes Ryah and Averey to see a movie. They then head to a Sky Zone trampoline park, where kids can leap, jump, and flip to exhaustion.
There’s one obstacle there called the Warped Wall. The object is to sprint up its curved incline and touch the top. Ryah races up the wall, feeling jubilant and free, as if trying to put the day behind her. She runs up it a second time.
After 10 more times, she finally pauses.
Then she looks at the wall one more time, and tries again.
Izzi takes her test a week after Ryah, on November 16, a Saturday. She’s almost back to her old self now. Just a few days earlier, her doctor had cleared her for full-day school. She was even given the green light for recess, but would need to wait to play basketball or soccer. She’s wearing one of her favorite shirts, the one with an image of a tiger on the front, and sits in a classroom on the second floor of her school with four of her Chestnut Hill classmates.
As she takes the test, Izzi is relieved when she sees the final essay passage. Soon it will all be over, she thinks. I don’t have to think about this anymore, and I can go home and sleep.
All in all, Izzi believes she did pretty well. “The easiest part was the essay,’’ she says, less than an hour after finishing. “Actually, I think, the math was pretty easy.”
Three days later, she gets her test results online. They aren’t what she was expecting.
Izzi’s scores place her in the 90th percentile of test takers in math, and the 55th in the English sections. With those results, she and her parents aren’t sure she can get into Boston Latin. Izzi’s head of school confirms as much in a blunt meeting with Sam and Charles, explaining that with Izzi’s test scores there is no guarantee she would get a Latin School invitation.
“We’re going to take the test again,’’ Sam says later. “The scores were not reflective of who she is as a student.”
Izzi decides to take a new test in January, too late for Latin admissions, but in time for consideration at a private school. And for the first time in her search, Izzi is giving Latin Academy — the only other public school on her list — a closer look. She is beginning to let go of the family dream of a Boston Latin education.
When Ryah’s scores came in the mail, neither she nor her father saw them. The school had sent them to Reggie’s sister’s house, where the family had once lived, and Ryah’s aunt assured them only that Ryah did well.
For a time, that seemed to be enough for Ryah. Her family looked forward to the next phase of their lives: a nicer, bigger home. Ryah, her braids transformed into a short curly Afro, was singing again and finding time to play on her new iPad, which she got for Christmas. She was even a little taller.
Izzi keeps her promise and retakes the test in January. She does substantially better, the higher scores reinforcing what she had suspected: that her concussion had an impact on her performance in November. And by March, Izzi, now 12, completely forgets the toll of the exam school process, as she and her mother set off for a spring break tour of Egypt.
The two depart just as the COVID-19 pandemic is beginning to dominate the news, leading Sam to pack plenty of antibacterial wipes and hand sanitizers. Over the first several days, she and Izzi go on camel rides, visit a Nubian village, and tour other ancient sites. Finally, on March 16, Sam opens the e-mail from Boston public schools as she sips coffee on her hotel balcony overlooking the Nile. She shows Izzi the message.
Izzi takes one look at the word “Congratulations,’’ and begins jumping up and down. Her November scores, coupled with her school performance, were good enough to get in after all.
“Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s go!’’ Izzi screams, breathlessly reading her invitation. “I’m going. I’m going to BLS!”
Madelyn is out running errands when Luis, now 12, opens the e-mail. Congratulations, it reads. He is going to Latin.
“I was like, YOOOOOO!!!!” Luis recalls. He ran into his aunt’s room before calling his mom to share the news. Madelyn rolls up the windows of her car and screams at the top of her lungs.
In his room, Luis has lots of awards from elementary school, “most creative,” and that type of stuff. “But those are just like mere pebbles” compared with getting into Latin, he says. His acceptance is “pretty much as big as the whole universe.”
“This is like a dream come true,” Madelyn says. “My son. He’s just so smart.”
With coronavirus bearing down on the city, they’d have to wait to go out to dinner to celebrate. In the meantime, Luis knows exactly what he wants: a frozen hot chocolate from Dunkin’ Donuts. No, he corrects himself: “A large frozen hot chocolate with cream.”
It takes a while before Ryah gets the notification from Boston public schools in her hands.
Reggie had been pulling doubles at work as the pandemic descended on the region, upending lives and closing schools and businesses. And the St. Brices had just moved into their new home, an airy duplex on a nicer side of Dorchester, where their orange tabby, Dexter, has plenty of space to roam.
It’s March 18, a few days after the invitations were sent out, when the family gathers to learn Ryah’s exam school fate.
“Ryah, you have mail,’’ Averey says as he runs up the stairs.
Ryah, still in her black and green school uniform, has put on her favorite robe. Her stepmother, Bonita, begins recording a video on her smartphone, excited to capture the moment. When Ryah struggles to open the envelope, Reggie helps her by using his keys. Ryah takes a deep breath and begins to read silently.
She holds the paper with both hands and stares at it as Reggie leans closer to her shoulder, bracing himself against the bed.
Ryah looks down. Bonita stops recording.
“We regret to inform you that we cannot offer your child a seat in the examination schools for the 2020-21 school year,” the letter reads. It notes there are no wait lists and there will be no appeals of the decision.
Scores on the Independent School Entrance Exam range from 760 to 940 on the four sections of the test. Ryah’s ranged from 823 to 855. They were solid, but they weren’t good enough for an exam school.
Ryah does not say much, but Reggie and Bonita fill the void with their pride. They praise her exceptional work for getting a B+ so far this year. They marvel at how strong her test scores are.
This does not define you, Reggie and Bonita say.
Ryah, looking deeply into her father’s eyes, chooses to believe them.
Partial funding for the Great Divide initiative is provided by the Boston-based Barr Foundation, which has made student success in high school and beyond a top priority. The Globe has complete editorial control over story selection, reporting, and editing.
Meghan E. Irons can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons. Malcolm Gay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay.