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THE GREAT DIVIDE

Change is boosting diversity at Boston’s exam schools, but some feel angry about not getting in

At Boston Latin School, the temporary plan has notably altered the composition of the incoming seventh-graders receiving admission offers.
At Boston Latin School, the temporary plan has notably altered the composition of the incoming seventh-graders receiving admission offers.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

The Great Divide examines public education in the region, with humanity and empathy, and with a goal of provoking public discussion and exploring what might be done to fix core issues of inequality, social mobility, and economic opportunity. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and send ideas and tips to thegreatdivide@globe.com.

In West Roxbury, a powerhouse in the exam-school admission race, the overall number of seventh-grade applicants receiving admission offers dramatically declined from 133 last year to 69 this year under a temporary policy that capped admission by ZIP code. The tougher competition meant students needed an A minus to get in.

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By contrast in Mattapan, a neighborhood where families typically have less means to hire admission consultants, the total number of seventh-grade applicants getting in more than doubled to 51 this year, with some candidates who had a B-minus average securing a coveted acceptance letter from one of the exam schools.

The divergent outcomes are part of a slew of data released by the Boston Public Schools in recent days that provides the clearest picture yet on the results of a temporary admission policy, which suspended a mandatory entrance exam and instead allocated seats by grades and — for the first time — by ZIP codes.

The changes have gone a long way in increasing the racial and socioeconomic diversity of those who got admitted to Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and the O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science, which has many civil rights and social justice advocates cheering.

“It’s really joyful to see that students who were not necessarily having the same level of access or opportunity to these highly selective public schools will now have the chance to attend these institutions,” said Lauren Sampson, a staff attorney at Lawyers for Civil Rights.

But many families, particularly those skilled at navigating the admissions process, are fuming. They contend the changes are denying too many top-performing students because of the caps on admission for each ZIP code, under a formula that favors areas with lower family median household income and larger portions of school-aged children.

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In a North End ZIP code, where the number of accepted students was in the single digits, a sixth-grader with an A average was devastated after receiving a letter last month informing her she had been rejected from all three exam schools.

“She feels dumb and unwanted,” her mother said a day after her daughter found out, and requested anonymity to avoid any more embarrassment for the girl. “She spent years working hard and doing all the right things. For it to end this way feels wrong.”

The dozens of pages of newly released data break down the demographic shift in admission at each of the exam schools.

At Boston Latin School, whose enrollment is least representative of school district averages, the temporary plan has notably altered the composition of the incoming seventh-graders receiving admission offers.

The portion of acceptance offers going to Black applicants increased from 6 percent last year to 17 percent this year and the share going to Latino applicants increased from 12 percent to 15 percent.

By contrast, a portion of admission offers sent to Asian applicants decreased from 27 percent to 24 percent and to white applicants from 50 percent to 38 percent.

A School Committee task force is closely evaluating the results of the temporary plan as members draft recommendations in the coming weeks on how to permanently change the criteria. Task force members could preserve the ZIP code allocations, add the entrance exam back into the mix, or come with an entirely different policy. They’ve also been looking for inspiration in other districts, such as Detroit and Chicago.

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The Boston School Committee last October temporarily dropped the admission test because members said it was not safe to administer the test in person during the pandemic.

It was a controversial move, prompting the Boston Parent Coalition for Academic Excellence Corp. to file a lawsuit in February on behalf of 14 white and Asian students, arguing the school district was using the ZIP code allocations as a proxy for race in an attempt to admit more Black and Latino students into the exam schools.

A federal district court judge disagreed and determined the ZIP code allocations were race neutral and constitutional. The coalition has filed for an appeal, but a panel of judges from the First Circuit Court, in dismissing the group’s request for an injunction to halt admission decisions from going out last month, doubted their appeal would be a success.

The ZIP code allocations proved to be effective in increasing the overall percentages of economically disadvantaged students getting into two of the exam schools. At Latin School, the percentage of economically disadvantaged students comprising those admitted rose from 23 percent last year to 32 percent this year, and at Latin Academy it went up from 37 to 49 percent.

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But at the O’Bryant, which historically has the largest percentage of low-income students, the school ended up admitting slightly more affluent students, as the portion of economically disadvantaged students receiving admission offers declined from 60 percent to 58 percent.

According to the newly released data, students attending BPS schools that typically have great success in getting students into the exam schools experienced some of the steepest declines in acceptances among their students — decreasing by more than 10. They include the Warren-Prescott K-8 in Charlestown, the Eliot K-8 in the North End, the Quincy Upper School in Chinatown, and the Kilmer K-8, the Lyndon PK-8, and the Ohrenberger in West Roxbury.

Schools that saw an additional 10 or more students getting accepted include the Curley K-8 in Jamaica Plain, the King K-8 School in Dorchester, and UP Academy in South Boston.

Some parents have publicly suggested that students earning admission with lower GPAs are less deserving of the seats than applicants with higher GPAs who were rejected from the exam schools. But civil rights advocates caution against drawing such conclusions.

“No students got a free pass,” said Jose Lopez, chair of the education committee at the Boston branch of the NAACP, stressing that all successful applicants met the eligibility criteria. “We are very happy for the families and students who received admission letters and will be starting in the fall. We hope the data and the success of the temporary policy will encourage the task force to consider what components need to be preserved for a permanent policy moving forward.”

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Applicants needed to have a B or higher GPA in English and math in the marking periods of the last school year prior to the pandemic. However, students with lower GPAs could qualify with MCAS scores meeting or exceeding expectations.

While there was variation in the range of GPAs of students accepted in each ZIP code, the overall GPA averages among the ZIP codes were closer together, with averages ranging from a B-plus to an A. The school department created a separate ZIP code for homeless students and those in DCF care, resulting in 53 of those applicants getting in with the average GPA of a B-plus and some had an A-plus.

In West Roxbury, Minnie Reyes Holleran, whose 12-year-old daughter with an A-minus GPA didn’t get an exam school seat, had mixed feelings about the temporary policy, which was developed with no public input and approved less than two weeks later.

“As a person of color, I do think the exam schools should better reflect the diversity of the city,” she said, but added, “it’s heartbreaking to have a child who did everything right and not have the opportunity to attend.”










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