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The Great Divide

From cheers to jeers, how Boston is reacting to the adopted exam school admission policy changes

The effort to revamp the admission policy for the exam schools was voluntary, not a response to litigation.
The effort to revamp the admission policy for the exam schools was voluntary, not a response to litigation.John Tlumacki

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Jubilation swept through many parts of Boston on Thursday, a day after the School Committee approved a historic overhaul of the admission process to the city’s exam schools that aims to increase the diversity of accepted applicants.

In many ways, the vote represents a major turning point for a city where just five years ago former mayor Martin J. Walsh abruptly shut down an attempt to change the criteria amid racial unrest at Boston Latin School, declaring the time was not right.

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And the effort to revamp the policy was voluntary — rooted in social justice activism — rather than a response to litigation, which had prompted other sweeping changes over the last five decades, from court-ordered racial set-asides in the 1970s to lawsuits waged by white parents in the 1990s that led to the demise of racial considerations in admission decisions.

“What we have achieved is an incredibly important mile marker on the road to greater equality in the Boston Public Schools, and in the process we have helped us, as a city, to confront our longstanding challenges with systemic racism,” said Tanisha Sullivan, president of the Boston branch of the NAACP and cochair of a task force that developed the new policy.

Sullivan credited students for galvanizing civil rights organizations to push for the changes, including those who launched the hashtag BlackatBLS in 2015 that brought attention to concerns about racism and the lack of diversity at the city’s highest ranking public school, where Black and Latino students fill few seats. And more recently other students who served on a task force that crafted the new policy kept pushing for change.

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The pandemic also opened the door to the sweeping changes, as school officials had to temporarily revamp entrance requirements last fall because they believed conditions were not safe to administer the admission test. Walsh supported that effort.

But discontent over the new policy also is brewing in other corners of the city and concerns over potential litigation. City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George, a mayoral candidate, blasted the new policy, saying that while the measure “claims to level the playing field and create improved access, it has not.”

”It is unclear, untested, and not informed by families across the city,” Essaibi George, a former East Boston High School teacher, said in a statement.

She called the process hasty, noting that as it unfolded there were School Committee members who were missing, a mayor who was serving in an interim, acting capacity, and a “school year of chaos and uncertainty.”

The new admission policy — more complex than the old — significantly elevates the odds of students from disadvantaged backgrounds getting into the exam schools by reducing the likelihood they will compete for seats against applicants whose families have the means to pay for private tutors and admission consultants.

Under the change, applicants will be dispersed across eight tiers that group together applicants from areas of the city with similar socioeconomic characteristics as measured by such factors as poverty levels, educational attainment, households headed by a single parent, households where English is not the primary language, and households not occupied by owners.

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Applicants from high-poverty schools or those who are homeless, in care of the Department of Children and Families, or living in public housing also earn extra points.

Like the old policy, applicants will be judged on grades and entrance exam scores, although grades will comprise 70 percent of the composite score instead of the previous level of 50 percent.

Acting Mayor Kim Janey Thursday publicly trumpeted the new policy as “the right move to move the city forward and certainly to give opportunity for families in Boston,” adding it was “an important day in terms of equity.”

“This is good for our students, this is good for our school district, and this is good for the city of Boston,” she said. “I would add that it is certainly important to make sure that all of our schools have academic rigor and are great choices for our families here in Boston, so we have more work to do.”

The changes will be phased in over the next two admission cycles. Due to concerns over learning disruptions during the pandemic, the new policy temporarily suspends the entrance exam for those seeking to get into Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and the O’Bryant School of Math and Science for the fall of 2022. Only grades from this upcoming school year will be considered for that admissions cycle.

The new policy could lead to some notable changes in the district’s elementary and K-8 schools. For the first time, applicants will be judged on their classroom performance in science and social studies in the sixth grade, instead of just English and math, and that could prompt schools to bolster instruction in those areas.

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Some parents said they were thrilled with the changes.

“We had a place, Boston Latin School, that was excluding people to the point that it was counter to everything the district was saying about promoting equity for students,” said Travis Marshall, whose two daughters attend the Phineas Bates Elementary School in Roslindale. “This is a step toward the end goal where every high school is well-resourced and attractive to families across the city.”

But other parents opposed the changes. Darragh Murphy, a Dorchester parent activist who is involved in a federal lawsuit challenging a temporary admission policy approved last fall, unsuccessfully urged the School Committee Wednesday night to delay a vote.

“There is no reason for the rush, no good reason that is. We have to assume it is political. In the face of a mayoral election in a few short months, is this body hoping to push through a permanent plan before a mayor and a City Council are elected?” she said, noting the temporary policy last year was approved in October.

The effort to overhaul the policy, beginning with temporary changes last fall, has been turbulent, exposing longstanding racial tensions in a city where wounds over court-ordered desegregation in the 1970s still linger. The debate was intensely toxic at times, especially on social media, as both sides lodged accusations of racism.

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And the effort ultimately led to the resignations of three School Committee members who approved the temporary policy. Former chair Michael Loconto was caught on a hot mic on the night of the vote mocking the names of speakers with Asian-sounding names. More recently, leaked text messages between former vice chair Alexandra Oliver-Dávila and member Lorna Rivera revealed they made disparaging comments about white families from West Roxbury on the night of the vote.

The push for change also attracted an unsuccessful lawsuit by a group of white and Asian parents alleging racial discrimination. The parent coalition returned to federal court last weeks in hopes of reopening their case based on the texts.

Other controversy ensued in the final weeks. Task force members changed their recommendation after Sullivan and the group’s other cochair, Michael Contompasis, informed members at their last meeting they had to add a provision under political pressure that would have set aside 20 percent of exam-school seats for a citywide competition.

Superintendent Brenda Cassellius on Wednesday excluded the provision from her final recommendations, in part, to help restore public trust in the process, winning over progressive-minded parents.

Several elected officials have repeatedly distanced themselves from the controversy and many expressed support for the new policy on Thursday.

Councilor Matt O’Malley said he liked that the tiers were based on census data rather than ZIP codes, but said he still had questions about the tiers and the extra points some applicants would receive.

”I think we do need some more clarity on that,” he said.

Councilor Ricardo Arroyo called the move “an enormous step forward from the prior system,” which he said had “well-known, well-understood inequities built into it.”

Nathan DeJesus, a senior at Fenway High School this fall, felt a bit conflicted about whether the policy would ultimately bring about good change. On one hand, DeJesus said, it’s a powerful way to give more students access to elite schools, but questioned whether the exams should carry more weight.

“Making that entrance exam only 30 percent makes it seem like there’s no point in having it at all,” said DeJesus, noting grades are subjective.

Felicia Gans of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis. Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald. Bianca Vázquez Toness can be reached at bianca.toness@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @biancavtoness.