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Civil rights coalition will be allowed to argue in exam school admissions lawsuit

Protesters calling for Boston schools to keep admission exams in place rally outside Boston Latin School on Oct. 18, 2020.
Protesters calling for Boston schools to keep admission exams in place rally outside Boston Latin School on Oct. 18, 2020.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/file

A federal judge Wednesday allowed a coalition of civil rights groups to intervene in a lawsuit challenging this year’s admissions process for Boston’s three public exam schools.

The lawsuit, filed Friday by a group formed in November called the Boston Parent Coalition for Academic Excellence, alleges that the school system’s temporary admissions standards for the selective high schools violates students’ constitutional rights and will “artificially favor Latino and African American students to the detriment of Asian and White students.”

The admissions plan for this fall awards 20 percent of seats in the three schools — Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and the John D. O’Bryant School of Math & Science — based exclusively on grades and 2019 MCAS scores. The remaining 80 percent of openings are awarded based on a combination of grades, MCAS scores, and ZIP codes, with the largest number going to the neighborhood with the greatest proportion of the city’s school-age children.

The lawsuit alleges the ZIP code assignment system is “anti-Asian” and will reduce the number of Asian and white students admitted to the exam schools while increasing enrollment among Latino and Black students.

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On Wednesday, US District Court Judge William G. Young said the coalition of civil rights groups in favor of letting the schools admit students based in part on their ZIP codes, including the NAACP’s Boston Branch, the Greater Boston Latino Network, the Asian Pacific Islanders Civic Action Network, and the Asian American Resource Workshop, could make arguments in the lawsuit.

Sixth grader Talia Banda held a sign reading, "I'm smart - but I live in the wrong zip code."
Sixth grader Talia Banda held a sign reading, "I'm smart - but I live in the wrong zip code." Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/file

He asked the plaintiffs, school officials, and the civil rights groups to meet outside of court and determine areas of agreement and areas of dispute. He scheduled another hearing for March 16.

“I want you all in good faith to turn your attention to agreeing to those facts you think must be before the court, that truthfully are not in dispute,” Young said.

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A lawyer for the school system agreed to delay acceptance notifications to students from March 29 until mid-April.

Young did not ask for substantive arguments at the hearing, instead focusing on logistics. But the city’s history of racial disparities in its public schools was mentioned briefly.

“It appears that they are really wanting to put the whole history of racial issues and Boston Public Schools up for trial,” William H. Hurd, a lawyer for the Boston Parent Coalition for Academic Excellence, said of the civil rights coalition.

“I will tell you, that’s what I think as well,” Young replied. “And I don’t really see that as central to deciding this case ... we’re going to base it on things that are genuinely undisputed, demographic facts about this city.”

The complaint was brought on behalf of 14 sixth-grade students of Chinese, Indian, and white ancestry who have applied to the exam schools and their parents, who are members of the organization.

This fall, Boston Latin School’s student body was 44 percent white, 29 percent Asian, 13 percent Hispanic or Latino, and just under 8 percent Black. At Boston Latin Academy, 30 percent of students are white, 26 percent are Hispanic, 21 percent are Black, and 19 percent are Asian. At the O’Bryant School, 34 percent of students are Hispanic, 32 percent are Black, 20 percent are Asian, and 12 percent are white.

In Boston schools as a whole, enrollment is 42 percent Latino, 29 percent Black, 15 percent white, and 9 percent Asian.

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In October, the Boston School Committee voted unanimously to drop the admissions test requirement at the exam schools for one year because of the pandemic. Supporters believe the test helps ensure a merit-based system while critics say it is unfair to students of color and those who live in poorer neighborhoods.

School officials have not filed a response to the lawsuit. The civil rights groups contend that the schools should be allowed to use the amended admissions policy as a small step toward acknowledging a history of inequities in Boston schools.

“History has shown us that when we begin to make progress toward our shared values, headwinds will try to come against us,” said Tanisha M. Sullivan, president of the NAACP Boston branch, which is leading the civil rights coalition. “By joining forces to file this motion, we hope to send a clear message that we are resolute in our determination to fight for the promise of this city to provide all children, in every neighborhood, from every socioeconomic background, with equitable access to our public schools.”


Gal Tziperman Lotan can be reached at gal.lotan@globe.com or at 617-929-2043.