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When Katie Yue-Sum Li, a Boston Public Schools teacher, heard that then-Boston School Committee chairman Michael Loconto had mocked Asian names of speakers at a meeting this fall, she wasn’t surprised. In Li’s view, the Boston Public Schools has been ignoring concerns raised by Asian American families, educators, and community leaders for years, often making them feel disrespected and invisible.
“We can say we are shocked Loconto said these things, but unfortunately it’s not shocking,” Li said. “His comments expose how much work needs to be done at all levels — not just in the classrooms, but in the hallways, and offices of city officials — to address racism.”
The Asian American community — a diverse group that largely includes Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, and Cambodian families — has long fought to be a part of important conversations in the Boston public school system, according to community members, and has struggled to be heard.
But this year, the relationship has come under increased strain after a series of episodes that have left Asian American parents and students feeling left out of big policy and programmatic changes, including a historic revamp of the admissions process for the city’s exam schools that will likely lead to fewer seats for Asian students.
Asian American families, educators, and community leaders say they have long battled a misconception that all Asian American students are high-achieving and do not require as much attention as other BPS students. Asian American parents say that when they tell school officials that their children are struggling with mental health issues, learning disabilities, or language barriers, their concerns are not taken seriously, and consequently their children don’t get the help they need.
In the spring, as Asian American students were facing increased discrimination fueled by the coronavirus originating in China, they found themselves barely mentioned in the Racial Equity Planning Tool, part of a new district-wide push to address growing racial inequalities exacerbated by the public health crisis. The efforts overwhelmingly focused on Black and Latino students.
In the summer, some Asian American families were left out of a discussion about reopening schools amid the pandemic because school officials failed to hire competent translators. This fall, the School Committee approved a temporary change to admission standards for the city’s exam schools that could make it more difficult for Asian American students to gain admission — the same night Loconto mocked Asian names.
And in November, Superintendent Brenda Cassellius blindsided Vietnamese families at Dorchester’s Mather Elementary School when she announced she was phasing out a popular English-immersion program beginning next fall. Instead, students will learn their academic subjects in both languages, raising concerns that it will take longer for children to learn English.
“Sometimes parents feel like their voices are lost or they don’t have the opportunities to be heard,” said Ben Hires, chief executive of the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center, which helps parents navigate the public schools.
In an interview, Cassellius said she wants to make sure all voices in the school system are heard. She acknowledged that interpretation services for Asian American families during a community meeting on Zoom this summer didn’t go well and vowed improvement. The day after Loconto’s comments, Cassellius met with Asian American leaders at a meeting arranged by City Councilor Ed Flynn and said Loconto’s mocking was unacceptable.
“We need to make sure we are creating antibiased and antiracist communities so kids can share and feel welcomed,” Cassellius said in the interview. “When we fall short, I take it personally and I want to fix it. I rally the team to come up with a plan and make sure we are meeting the needs of our entire community. All means all.”
In October, a group of school officials and members of the Asian American community began meeting to discuss ways to address the community’s concerns and improve the school system’s relationship with Asian American families, an effort that took on new urgency after Loconto’s comments and swift resignation. The School Committee is also expanding translation services at its meetings.
Asian American students are one of the smallest racial groups in the city’s schools, accounting for less than 10 percent of approximately 51,000 students. But they have outsized representation at the competitive exam schools, filling almost a third of the seats at Latin School and a fifth of the seats at Latin Academy and the O’Bryant School of Math and Science.
As a result, Asian American students are in some ways penalized for their success, parents say. They are often assumed to be academically talented and from financially stable families, but many are from immigrant households where the primary language is not English and their parents are scraping by with low-paying jobs. About three-quarters of people of Asian descent in Boston are foreign-born and 30 percent live in poverty, according to an analysis of US Census data by the Institute for Asian American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston. A separate report earlier this year by the Boston Foundation indicated that most Asian students live in low-income households.
“We have children in Chinatown, Fields Corner, and parts of the South End living in affordable housing,” said Suzanne Lee, former principal of the Josiah Quincy Elementary School in Chinatown. “To say [Asian Americans are rich] is a disservice to the children and their families who have sacrificed everything to make sure their children have a future.”
That is why the exam school admissions proposal was so alarming to many Asian American families, particularly in Chinatown and the surrounding area.
The plan calls for canceling the entrance exams for one year due to the pandemic, making admission decisions based almost exclusively on student grades. School officials also proposed another radical change for next year: assigning a certain number of seats for each zip code in an effort to increase the representation of Black and Latino students.
The plan sparked an outcry in the Asian American community and aggressive lobbying against the plan, which many parents condemned as unfair and discriminatory.
Cass Li, whose 11-year-old daughter attends the Josiah Quincy Upper School in the Chinatown area, was among the parents upset by the changes. Although Li was expecting school officials to cancel the entrance exams this fall, she was surprised by the geographic restrictions on admission, which in some parts of the city might favor students with lower grades.
“It’s not fair for those students who are really working hard to fulfill their goal,” she said through an interpreter.
Given the high-stakes atmosphere around exam school admissions, Asian American community leaders said school officials should have developed the proposal in public and included more parents and community leaders in the process so there would have been less confusion over the reasons for the changes, especially because many parents don’t speak English.
Natasha Warikoo, a sociology professor at Tufts University, said Asian Americans in Boston should get behind these policy changes if they believe in education fairness access, but she also noted that Asian Americans all too often get left out of conversations about racism.
“You can’t just think of antiracism as addressing inclusion for Black and Latinx families; you have to think about how it includes Asian Americans,” she said.