The Great Divide is an investigative team that explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and send ideas and tips to email@example.com.
For years, Boston school officials have resisted calls from parents to create wait-lists for the city’s highly sought after exam schools, arguing they typically get their desired enrollment by accurately projecting each year the number of applicants who will reject admissions offers.
But now that is about to change. Boston Superintendent Brenda Cassellius is crafting what might be the system’s first-ever wait-lists for Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and the O’Bryant School of Math and Science.
The move comes after a decline in enrollment of nearly 250 students across the three schools this fall and amid acrimony over new admission requirements.
“We want to make sure that we fill every seat in our exam schools and we have heard many questions about a wait-list,” Cassellius said at Wednesday night’s School Committee meeting, where she announced her plan. “Historically, there has not been a wait-list at our three exam schools.”
Some parents raised new questions about the lack of waiting lists for the exam schools earlier this year after school officials revealed they had offered admission to fewer students this year than previous years. The admission decisions also came in April, a month later than usual, because of a federal court case filed by a group of white and Asian parents that unsuccessfully sought to halt implementation of a temporary policy that doled out seats based on student grades and ZIP codes.
The late admission offers arrived after some families paid deposits for private school tuition and it was unclear if they would reject the offers to attend the exam schools. A certain number of families each year pass up exam school seats in favor of private, parochial or charter schools.
Whether the late admission offers or the changes in the admission requirements factored into the enrollment drops is not entirely clear. A Globe analysis of state enrollment data for seventh grade — the most popular entry point for exam school admission — reveals conflicting outcomes.
While the number of seventh graders at Latin School decreased by about 40 this year compared to last year and by 14 at the O’Bryant, the number of seventh graders at Latin Academy increased by 17 this year. Other grade levels at the schools also saw decreases and in some cases increases.
A school spokesman said enrollment at the exam schools fluctuates year to year as the district attempts to anticipate how many applicants will accept seats. The number of available seats also can vary at the entry grades, 7 and 9 at all three schools, based on over or under enrollment in other grade levels. [The O’Bryant also admits students at Grade 10.]
“Boston Public Schools is committed to ensuring all students have access to our three exam schools and that each seat is occupied by a highly qualified student,” Jonathan Palumbo, the spokesman said in a statement. “We partner with the three Heads of School on enrollment projections utilizing existing data and historical context to set goals for each year’s new class of students.”
He attributed the enrollment decline this year to “an over-enrollment five years ago due to an accounting error,” and noted “those students graduated last year so this year’s enrollment is more closely aligned to prior enrollment.”
Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, said a variety of factors likely are behind this year’s enrollment drop, including families who may have turned down an exam-school education as they struggle with housing insecurity during the pandemic. Lack of housing can prompt families to leave the city.
“BPS should absolutely find a way to fill the empty seats at the exam schools to provide more students with academic opportunities,” he said.
While all the details of the wait-list policy are still being finalized, Cassellius said each school will keep separate wait-lists for grades 7 and 9. The new policy would go into effect next school year. Each wait-list will be capped at 100 students.
Wait-lists will be created the same way exam school seats are awarded under a new admission policy the School Committee approved last summer.
That policy aims to ensure all students regardless of their backgrounds and where they live have a fair shot at getting in based on their grades. Many applicants will qualify for 10 bonus points if they attend a school where at least 40 percent of students are economically disadvantaged, which includes all but five BPS schools. Students who are homeless, in foster care, or living in public housing will qualify for 15 bonus points, which would supersede the other points.
Under the policy, applicants will be divided into eight tiers based on the socioeconomic characteristics of where they live in the city. Admission offers will be made in rank order of grades and any bonus points within each tier.
Once all the seats at each school are doled out, the admission rounds will continue to create the wait-lists, which would expire annually on Nov. 30. Students admitted to their top-choice will not be placed on wait-list for the other exam schools.
Starting for admission for fall 2023, test scores will be added into the admission equation.
Michael Contompasis, a former Boston superintendent who led Latin School for many years, said he doesn’t recall the exam schools ever having wait-lists and questioned the need for them. With accurate projections on the portion of students who will accept admission offers, the district should be able to come within the right range for the targeted enrollment.
But often, he said, the exact headcount is not known until after the school year begins and empty seats need to remain open for a certain period of time in case the student who it was assigned to shows up. Consequently, by the time it becomes clear the student has no intention of claiming it, it’s a month into the school year and any student admitted late to fill the seat would be behind in their classes in schools known for academic rigor, he said.
James Vaznis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.