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THE GREAT DIVIDE

Task force leans toward reducing importance of entrance exams for admission

Boston parents file motion to reopen exam school admission case, citing withheld text messages

The School Committee adopted a temporary policy last fall in light of the pandemic, which resulted in more Black and Latino students getting admitted to exam schools like Boston Latin School.
The School Committee adopted a temporary policy last fall in light of the pandemic, which resulted in more Black and Latino students getting admitted to exam schools like Boston Latin School.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

As a coalition of Asian and white parents seize upon racially-charged text messages to block changes to Boston’s exam-school admission policies in federal court, members of a School Committee task force Thursday night indicated they were leaning towards keeping an entrance exam but that the results would likely carry less weight.

The developments came as the task force is racing to meet a June 30 deadline to present the School Committee with recommendations to permanently change admission requirements for Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and the O’Bryant School of Math and Science, in an effort to increase diversity.

The task force had been deeply divided over using test scores, but in an attempt at compromise many members said they were leaning towards test scores and grades for admission decisions. Test scores could make up between 20 and 40 percent of the calculations and the rest would be based on grades, instead of the current 50-50 split.

“I think we’ve had a breakthrough,” said Michael Contompasis, a former Boston superintendent who cochairs the task force.

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The group stopped short of taking a formal position on test scores, as members asked for additional analysis on how test scores could influence the socio-economic, geographic, and racial composition of accepted applicants. The group is also considering giving applicants from high-poverty schools an extra bump as they ponder an array of other options.

The task force meeting unfolded hours after news reports surfaced that the Boston Parent Coalition for Academic Excellence Corp. had returned to federal district court on Tuesday to ask a judge to reconsider a ruling that upheld a temporary exam-school admission policy, contending that city officials intentionally concealed evidence that showed racial bias among School Committee members.

In their motion, the parent coalition accused officials of wrongfully withholding text messages that proved then vice chair Alexandra Oliver-Dávila and member Lorna Rivera were biased against white people. The two were disparaging white parents from West Roxbury as they exchanged text messages during a meeting in October when they approved the temporary admission policy for this coming fall’s entering classes.

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The policy change suspended the admission test and instead admitted applicants based on grades and in most cases allocated seats by ZIP codes, which reduced applicants from West Roxbury getting in and the overall number of successful white and Asian applicants.

“The newly disclosed text messages from Oliver-Dávila and Rivera — both leading proponents of the Zip Code Quota Plan — clearly show racial animus, which is presumably why the messages were covered up, and why Oliver-Dávila and Rivera both resigned when those messages came to light,” according to court documents submitted for the motion.

If the district court reopens the case, it could have implications on the process to permanently change the admission criteria. As part of its motion, the coalition is asking the court to ban future use of ZIP codes in awarding exam-school seats, an option that the School Committee task force is considering. (The coalition is not seeking to change the admission outcomes for this fall.)

William Hurd, a lawyer for the coalition, declined to elaborate on the motion, saying, “We will let documents filed with the court speak for themselves.”

The text messages, which were originally gathered as part of a Globe public records request last fall but were withheld, became public in recent weeks after someone leaked them. A member of the parents coalition also filed a request for the text messages but received the same text messages provided to the Globe. The coalition contends that city officials falsely affirmed those text messages when they were entered into court records were a “true and accurate” accounting of the communications between the two committee members.

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In their text message exchanges that were omitted from the court records and from public disclosure, Rivera texted to Oliver-Dávila towards the start of the October meeting “wait until the white racists start yelling at us.”

Oliver-Dávila texted back: “Whatever. They’re delusional.” And she then added “I hate WR” in reference to West Roxbury.

“Sick of Westie whites,” Rivera replied. “Me too. I really feel like saying that,” Oliver-Dávila texted.

Boston school officials declined to comment on the court case.

The School Committee adopted the temporary policy last fall in light of the pandemic, which they argued made it unsafe to administer the admission test. The change increased Black and Latino applicants being admitted, and decreased acceptances for white and Asian students.

But the vote has been overshadowed by controversy from the start. Michael Loconto, then the School Committee chairman, was caught on a live microphone mocking the names of speakers with Asian-sounding names and resigned hours later.

In ruling that the temporary policy was constitutional in April, Judge William Young determined it was not racially discriminatory, but he also criticized Loconto, calling his comments racist.

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“This Court takes them seriously but finds no persuasive evidence that any other voting member had such animus,” Young wrote. “This is conclusive.”

The coalition contends that the recently uncovered text messages now cast doubt on the judge’s conclusion, which they also are appealing in the First Circuit.

“These new text messages change this evidentiary landscape,” the motion stated. “Three of the seven voting Committee Members — 43 percent of the Committee — are now on the record with statements of actual animus towards the two racial groups negatively impacted by the Zip Code Quota Plan. And those three Committee Members have all resigned over their comments.”

The latest legal maneuver did not come up during the task force meeting, but the use of ZIP codes did.

Rosann Tung, a member and researcher, noted the ZIP code policy provided greater neighborhood diversity at the exam schools.

“You’re right, that if we propose a mechanism that is different meaning not using ZIP codes, then we will not achieve the level of geographic diversity that we saw with the interim policy,” said Tanisha Sullivan, cochair of the task force and president of the NAACP’s Boston branch, which has intervened in the court case on behalf of the school system. “But we also have to be mindful that we’re trying to get to a solution that is responsive most importantly to our charge but also all of the issues and concerns that have been raised across the city.”

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Matt Cregor, a task force member and attorney, reminded the group about the legal parameters of their work as discussion of racial balancing emerged.

“That is something that the courts would likely determine unconstitutional,” he said.

But he added, “We should be promoting racial diversity as a vehicle that provides significant educational benefits to all students who experience it.”

During public comment, Jose Valenzuela, a history teacher at Latin Academy and a Latin School graduate, advocated against using test scores.

“We’re capable of teaching any of the students that you put in front of us in the fall and going forward,” he said. He also drew upon his own personal experience to push for greater diversity, noting he was in one of the last classes to be admitted to Latin School in the 1990s under racial quotas.

“When I entered one in three seats were occupied by Black and Latinx students and when I exited six years later that was cut in half to one in six,” he said, “and I feel like one of the lucky ones because I graduated, but I also felt ostracized for being kind of a quota kid.”


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