Acting Mayor Kim Janey announced Thursday the appointments of two Latina mothers of Boston Public Schools students to the Boston School Committee, making good on her pledge to fill the “void” of Hispanic representation after a texting scandal prompted the resignations of two members.
The newly sworn-in members are Lorena Lopera, the Massachusetts executive director of Latinos for Education who grew up as an unauthorized Colombian immigrant, and Rafaela Polanco Garcia, director of parent engagement and organizing at St. Stephen’s Youth Programs, which serves BPS students. Polanco Garcia, who speaks Spanish, became the city’s first School Committee member who doesn’t speak fluent English.
The appointments return more Latino representation to the Boston School Committee, which oversees a district where 43 percent of students are Hispanic and 30 percent of students are English language learners.
“Ms. Polanco Garcia and Ms. Lopera bring incredible depth of knowledge and lived experience to the Boston School Committee,” Janey said. “I am thrilled to appoint these talented new committee members, who represent so many of the residents in our city.”
Janey selected Lopera and Polanco Garcia from a list of six finalists chosen by a nominating panel of teachers, parents, and community members. The women will serve through the end of her current term, but whoever is elected Boston mayor in November would then have the option to reappoint them or choose new members.
A first-generation immigrant from the Dominican Republic, Polanco Garcia, who was sworn in Thursday in Spanish, is a single mother who lives in public housing in South Boston and has a background in law and bilingual advocacy on issues related to Latinos in education, such as the Student Opportunity Act and a 2017 resolution making schools “sanctuaries” from immigration enforcement. About 10 percent of BPS students live in Boston Housing Authority developments, officials said.
“To my fellow parents, I want to say something: I am here not to fight for you; I am here to fight beside you to make the changes we want,” Polanco Garcia said through an interpreter. “I firmly believe that public schools should be a second home for students and families.”
Lopera, meanwhile, is a first-generation immigrant from Colombia who lives in Jamaica Plain. She has long worked with education advocacy groups focused on students of color including Sociedad Latina, La Vida Inc., Building Excellent Schools, City Year, and the Posse Foundation. She is also the co-chair of the Hurley K-8 School Site Council.
Lopera, who addressed the audience in both Spanish and English, said her family moved to the United States as unauthorized immigrants when she was 4 years old. She recalled hearing her parents worry about “green cards,” and giving them green paper that she thought would help.
“Growing up with the possibility of having everything taken away from us because of our immigration status, my mother always said ... ‘Study because that is something that can never be taken away from you,’ ” Lopera said. “It instilled and reinforced the value of education. I have taken the same to heart.”
Lopera said she has spent her career working to increase educational opportunities for marginalized families and to boost teacher diversity in Boston.
“My own educational experience and my experience as a Boston Public Schools parent is what will guide my decisions on the Boston School Committee,” Lopera said.
In addition to the chosen members, the finalists were: Ruby Reyes, executive director of the equity advocacy group Boston Education Justice Alliance; Jose Lopez, a former teacher and treasurer of the Talented and Gifted Latino Program at University of Massachusetts Boston; Rashmi Tiwari, a BPS parent, public health consultant; and Michael G. Williams Jr., a program officer with the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.
The new appointments come on the heels of the June resignations of former School Committee chairwoman Alexandra Oliver-Dávila and member Lorna Rivera after disparaging text messages they exchanged about white parents from West Roxbury were made public from the night the School Committee approved a temporary change to the admissions policy of the city’s three exam schools.
The admission plan that the committee approved temporarily suspended the entrance exam and instead admitted students based on grades and allocated most seats at Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and the O’Bryant School of Math and Science by students’ ZIP codes. The change led to a reduction of white and Asian applicants and an increase of Black and Latino applicants getting in.
On the night the School Committee approved the temporary plan last October, Oliver-Dávila texted to Rivera, “I hate WR” in reference to West Roxbury, and Rivera replied, “Sick of Westie whites.” Oliver-Dávila shot back: “Me too. I really feel like saying that.”
That meeting also led to the resignation last fall of then-School Committee chairman Michael Loconto, who was caught on a live microphone mocking the Asian-sounding names of some speakers.
At the time of the leaked texts in June, Rivera and Oliver-Dávila apologized. Oliver-Dávila said as a young Latina student, she was bullied over her ethnicity while attending a school in West Roxbury.
Last week, the Boston School Committee voted to overhaul the admissions policies for the exam schools permanently, aimed at increasing socioeconomic, racial, and geographic diversity. Applicants now will be selected from eight tiers that group together applicants from areas of the city with similar socioeconomic characteristics.
The new appointments Thursday drew praise from Latino education advocates, in addition to Superintendent Brenda Cassellius, School Committee chair Jeri Robinson, and other education officials.
“The loss of Alex Oliver-Dávila and member Lorna Rivera from the BSC was inestimable,” said Samuel Acevedo, executive director of the Boston Higher Education Resource Center. “But succeeding them are a set of Latinas who are both BPS parents, and have both been — for years — tireless advocates for our community’s children.”
Janey said she was asking all city staffers and School Committee members to take racial equity leadership training. She said the appointment of Polanco Garcia would push the school system to work harder to translate documents faster for the city’s non-English-speaking families.
“Today begins a new day for equity, transparency, and accountability for the Boston School Committee,” Janey said.
Naomi Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.