Her son is only 3 years old, a shy, curious toddler who loves riding his scooter outside in the rain. But as Emily Centeio considers where to send her only child next fall for pre-kindergarten, she feels the weight of his entire education hanging in the balance.
She longs to enroll him at the well-regarded public school near their Dorchester home. But she cannot control where he ends up; Boston uses a lottery system to assign students to schools, making a gamble of this critical decision. The city has many fine schools — but also too many known for achievement gaps, deteriorating buildings, and outbreaks of violence.
Centeio can’t take a chance like that with her little boy. So, like many Black parents across Boston, she is making other plans. She will enter the BPS school lottery this winter, but she is also applying to charter and private schools; hedging her bets feels like the only way.
“It’s so pivotal where they go to school — they spend so much time there,” she said. “When I look at private schools, I’m nervous about the cost, but I’m also nervous about him in a traditional environment in BPS. … I just want to support him, and give him the experience he deserves.”
In a dramatic reshaping of its makeup, Boston Public Schools has lost half its Black student population in the last two decades, as Black enrollment fell from 29,300 in the 2002-2003 school year to 14,600 last year. There is no one reason for this colossal shift; it is part of a larger demographic trend, as the city has become home to fewer children overall, birth rates have declined, and the city’s housing crisis, with out-of-reach prices and limited supply, is driving Black families, like many other families, to move away.
But the outsize loss of Black students also points to something beyond demographics: a fundamental shift in Black families’ capacity and willingness to seek options outside BPS in their quest for the best education for their children. Reforms to Boston’s schools have been piecemeal and maddeningly slow, and, increasingly, parents won’t wait.
And so a system once infamous for the “white flight” of families to the suburbs in the wake of the school integration maelstrom of the 1970s is seeing a new kind of exodus.
“We’re leaving because we’re tired,” said LaTasha Sarpy, a Boston mother of three who is Black, and opted to send her children to a charter school instead of BPS. “My mom was fighting this fight 35 years ago, trying to find the best schools. … In my opinion, it’s not really a choice. To sacrifice my children’s education? That is not a choice. We’re leaving because, at some point, enough is enough.”
The decline in the number of Black students is by far the most striking shift, but other families are also voting with their feet. White and Asian enrollment also fell in this 20-year stretch; white students make up just 15 percent of the school population in BPS. These losses were partially offset by the addition of 4,400 more Latino and multiracial students, but overall enrollment has plunged by more than 13,000 since 2002 — and appears poised to keep falling as long as Black families continue opting out.
In a generation, the demographics of the city’s schools have been transformed.
Black enrollment, which made up about 49 percent of all BPS students in 2000 and 39 percent in 2008, has now declined to 30 percent — a proportion that more closely mirrors the population in the city, where 19 percent of residents are Black. The change shows up in expected ways, like the mix of students in classrooms, and also has ripple effects: Black enrollment has surged in the city’s charter schools — half the charter students in Boston are Black — and in some nearby communities, like Quincy, the Black student population has more than doubled over the last two decades.
Boston is not alone in its transformation. Black enrollment in Los Angeles also fell by half in 20 years; Chicago closed 50 schools a decade ago to address its own enrollment downturn. Falling birth rates are part of the equation — births to Black mothers in Suffolk County have fallen nearly a third since 1995 — but experts say concern about urban school quality is also driving suburbanization and charter enrollment here and around the country.
In Boston, Black families cite long-simmering impatience and frustration with the pace of school improvement. They point to the lottery system, which limits access to neighborhood schools, and concerns about unstable district leadership and uneven school quality. Boston’s new superintendent, Mary Skipper, is the ninth to lead the district in the past two decades, turnover that has slowed efforts to close gaps for students of color, English learners, and those with disabilities.
A recent MassINC/Shah Foundation poll found that just 34 percent of the district’s Black parents would choose a BPS school if they had the option to send their child to any type of school; 25 percent said they’d prefer private school and 36 percent a charter.
BPS administrators say they are trying to address the loss of Black students and others by collaborating with city partners to increase affordable housing and to rebuild outdated facilities with $2 billion in funding through the Green New Deal initiative; they say they’re also working to recruit and retain Black and brown teachers and dismantle racist structures that contribute to achievement gaps.
In an interview and written statement, Skipper vowed to close those gaps and provide the assets Black parents — and all parents — want: strong academics; safe, well-maintained buildings; social-emotional support; equitable access to opportunities like the city’s prestigious exam schools; a sense of belonging.
“They want to know that their student is going to be successful,” she said, “and that they’re not going to be left behind.”
But all of this will take time — and many Black families say their patience with BPS has worn thin.
“There’s no lack of data, but it hasn’t been used, when it comes to Black and brown folks not getting what they need,“ said Vernée Wilkinson, a Black parent and education advocate. “We’ve known these things for decades, so do right by our children.”
Like other families who end up seeking other options, Wilkinson began with a simple plan: She would send her children to the well-regarded public school near their Boston home.
As a new mom in Roslindale, eagerly putting down roots, she had come to know the Boston Teachers Union Pilot School, pushing her daughter there in a stroller for a preschool playgroup. As she watched the toddlers playing side by side, she imagined them heading off to kindergarten together in the neat brick building.
Then she learned about the district’s lottery system. Her daughter would be assigned to a school by a computer algorithm that factors in proximity to home, but makes no promises. It is meant as a safeguard against segregation, and a way to foster fairness in a system with notably uneven school quality. But it makes a childhood spent with neighborhood companions at a nearby public school a pipe dream for most.
To Wilkinson, who never imagined her daughter being bused across the city to an unknown school, it felt like a pin puncturing her hopeful vision.
“The fact that it’s a lottery — that you’re outright gambling with your child’s future —– nothing about that feels good,” said the 43-year-old, whose daughter is now in high school.
Still, Wilkinson and her husband dove in, visiting schools, clicking on websites, building spreadsheets of their options. As instructed by the district, they listed 15 or 20 schools on their pre-K lottery application. But the Roxbury school they were assigned to, as Wilkinson recalls it, wasn’t even in their top dozen choices.
They accepted it anyway, despite the long bus ride for their 4-year-old. Then their child was bullied, and the school struggled to address the problem. It left them wary, uncertain how — or if — future issues would be handled.
A year later, facing a second try in the lottery to seek a new placement for kindergarten, the couple considered private schools for the first time.
Neither had experience in that privileged realm. They worried about the cost, and the long-term consequences for their biracial child, who would likely be surrounded by white classmates.
Only 5.7 percent of students at New England private schools were Black in 2020, according to the National Association of Independent Schools. (In addition, 8 percent identified as multiracial, up from 4 percent a decade earlier.)
“It was agonizing,” said Wilkinson, “to have deep roots in our community, as a business owner, a homeowner, and not feel our child’s education could be connected to that.”
In the end, they applied to one private school. Accepted there, and waitlisted at their top pick in BPS — Mission Hill K-8 — they chose the more certain path. Years later, with the explosive revelations of abuse at Mission Hill, the outcome seems a stroke of heart-stopping good luck. But at the time, it felt like a path forged from constraints, not freedom.
In this unexpected result — so far from the easy choice she once imagined — Wilkinson discerned the legacy of decades of racism and neglect that undermined the district’s progress, and left her family without a public school option they could embrace.
“This school system serves mostly Black and brown families, in a city with all the resources it needs to succeed at education, so when it fails generation after generation, it begins to appear intentional,” she said. “To me, it speaks to will: You can do great things, Boston — build a new neighborhood in the Seaport; bury a highway to create the Greenway — but when it comes to BPS, you choose not to.”
Not every Black family considers Boston’s history in choosing schools for their children. But for some, the city’s worst days still cast a long shadow.
Some parents of today’s school-age children grew up hearing stories from their elders — parents, aunts and uncles, or grandparents — who lived through the integration of the city’s schools in the 1970s, and witnessed firsthand as students that period of racism and violence.
That fraught era is long past, but its legacy lives on, subtly shaping the attitudes and preferences of another generation of Black Bostonians, said Richard O’Bryant, director of the John D. O’Bryant African American Institute at Northeastern University. The institute is named for his father, the first Black member of Boston’s School Committee.
“Boston has never really shaken the stigma of busing,” O’Bryant said in an interview.
Like a tree bent slowly sideways by decades of wind, the decline in the city’s Black school enrollment may reflect, in part, a slow, incremental retreat from a source of trauma.
“I think we’re seeing the residue of what families have been thinking about for years, and now have the means to do,” O’Bryant said, “to get their children educated outside the public schools.”
That impulse is melded with another force rooted in Black history, especially for those whose ancestors were enslaved and barred by law from becoming educated. For many, that legacy drives an intense family focus on education, said Wilkinson, the mom who enrolled her child in private school.
In the plans and aspirations of these families, there is no place for a school system like Boston’s, which narrowly avoided a state takeover last summer after a review found entrenched dysfunction, and where test scores show fewer than one-third of students in grades 3 through 8 achieve proficiency in math and reading.
Still, it is wrenching for some parents to bypass public schools they love, that shaped their own lives. They know their involvement, as engaged and active stakeholders, might make things better.
But no amount of loyalty to one’s city, or hope for its future, will keep a family hell-bent on the best education from finding it, Black parents said — whether that means a charter school, a private school, homeschooling, or a neighborhood school in the suburbs.
“For the Black community, this is the fight of our lives,” Wilkinson said. “Education was, and will always be, the thing we fight for.”
Boston’s new school superintendent acknowledged the weight of the past on the city’s Black parents.
“They want to make sure that the systemic racism and structures that have existed within BPS, that we are actively working to dismantle them,” Skipper said. “For our Black families, if they’re feeling that they need to make [other] choices … that is something that I have to take immediately to heart.”
She said listening closely to Black families to understand the “hard truths” of their experience is a crucial first step toward a district “where our Black parents can say with confidence, ‘I can send my child to Boston Public Schools, and I will have outcomes that I want for my child.’ ”
LaTasha Sarpy’s mother was one of those Black parents, determined to find the best school for her only child. She found it, at first, in Boston Public Schools, where Sarpy attended the Trotter School in Dorchester, and thrived.
“The school was on fire at that time,” recalls Sarpy, now 39. “We had a bilingual program, a newspaper, school plays. … Everybody wanted their kids to go there.”
But the neighborhood where she lived was changing. There were outbreaks of random violence; Tiffany Moore, 12, was hit by a stray bullet and killed while sitting on a mailbox. Sarpy was 11, entering sixth grade, when her mother began looking outward, to the suburbs.
Her mom had placed her on a waiting list for Metco, the voluntary suburban integration program launched in 1966 as Black Boston parents sought educational equity. A spot opened in Brookline, and Sarpy’s mother grabbed it — against the fervent pleading of her daughter.
“I hated it,” said Sarpy, remembering her protests at the time. “I was like, why put me here, far away from my friends, where I’m one of three Black students?”
In Brookline, she was often the only student of color in her classes. She endured slights and misunderstandings by white students, and struggles with her own racial identity. But by the time she graduated, Sarpy had come to love her school community, and was grateful for her mother’s choice.
“I realized how much better prepared I was,” she says, “My friends in BPS were asked, ‘Are you going to college?’ while I was asked, ‘What college are you going to?’”
Like many Black parents, Sarpy put her own first child’s name on the waitlist for Metco soon after he was born. But as he approached school age in 2012, she heard things that worried her.
Among Metco families she knew, it seemed too many students had been given IEPs, specialized plans for learning challenges. She worried that race might play a factor in their placements.
But the BPS school in her neighborhood did not impress her either. Her friends told her to chill out: “Everybody was like, ‘It’s just kindergarten, Tasha – it’s no big deal.’” But Sarpy’s field was education. She had done the research, and she knew better.. She was apprehensive about charter schools, and the strict discipline she’d heard that some imposed. Her mind changed on her first charter tour, as she watched students laughing and learning math as they played a game of “Duck, Duck, Goose.” This was the joyful place she’d searched for, and she knew it was the right place for her son.
Sarpy and her husband — who is also Black, and attended public schools in New Orleans until his mother grew fearful of school violence and chose to homeschool him — made the same decision as thousands of other Black parents. Statewide, Black enrollment at charter schools has more than doubled since 2003, from 5,000 to 12,000, and would almost certainly be larger still if not for a state cap that has limited Boston’s charter enrollment since 2018.
Now a professor of behavioral science at Bunker Hill Community College, Sarpy has three children at Brooke Charter School in Boston, where 52 percent of students are Black, and she is a member of the board of directors. As a sixth-grader, her eldest son took and passed the entrance exam for Boston Latin School — the crown jewel of the BPS system — yet chose to stay at Brooke for high school.
Her youngest went to pre-kindergarten at Beethoven Elementary, a Boston public school, and Sarpy loved it, enough to consider braving the BPS lottery. In the end, though, she stuck with the option she knows best.
“I always say, I don’t want a school that’s improving, I want a school that’s proven,” Sarpy said. “I don’t want my kids to be the guinea pigs.”
Wilkinson and her husband loved Roslindale, and planned to stay there, even with their daughter in private school in Brookline. But as their second child approached school age, and the couple again weighed their options, they felt a crushing reality sink in.
They could not imagine taking a third gamble on the BPS lottery — but stretching their budget to cover two private school tuitions was equally unthinkable.
Reluctantly, they turned their gaze outside the city, to nearby suburbs, seeking a diverse, reliable public system where they could control what school their child would attend, and where they could afford to buy a home. Last year they moved to Milton, where their son is a second-grader at a school with equal numbers of white and Black students. Their daughter, now a sophomore, enrolled at a different private school for high school.
In the years since her daughter started kindergarten, Wilkinson has grown more knowledgeable about Boston’s public schools, and more outraged by their history of neglect. In her job at SchoolFacts Boston, she empowers Boston families with information about education and helps them advocate for better options.
Meanwhile, her daughter’s private education presents its own challenges, different from those she might have faced in BPS. Now, instead of worrying about broken bathrooms or a lack of music classes, Wilkinson laments the stubborn gaps in cultural sensitivity on campuses with few students of color.
When she talks with Black friends who are also parents, they circle back again and again to education — the options they are weighing for their children; the options they wish they had.
Ask her what she thinks it would have taken for her to send her kids to Boston Public Schools, and she pauses, thinking of the generations of Black families whose needs went unmet.
How many more, she wonders, are yet to lose out, too?
“A time machine,” she says at last, invoking the district’s long inaction. “So many lost decades when they should have, could have been vigilant. … But you can’t get that time back. And you can’t fully restore what those families lost.”
Back in Dorchester, Emily Centeio reads her 3-year-old his favorite book, a Richard Scarry classic crammed with illustrations of zooming cars and trucks. She imagines a day not far into the future when he will learn to read himself, sounding out the letters one by one in a classroom somewhere yet to be determined.
She remembers how comfortable she felt as a child at Edward Everett Elementary, a public school in Dorchester, and how she longed to return there after her parents, immigrants from Cape Verde, pulled her from BPS for middle school and sent her to the private, nonprofit Epiphany School in Dorchester, where low-income students receive full scholarships. Overnight, her class sizes shrank by half, and teachers pushed her harder. “I couldn’t get by in the same way,” she said.
She recalls, a few years later, how she refused to get out of the car when her mother took her to an open house at a private high school in Weston, and how she longed, again, for the familiarity of BPS. “It was beautiful,” she said of the suburban campus, “but I was so intimidated.” She ended up graduating from the private Rivers School, but struggling with a sense of disconnection, because so few students there were Black like her.
“I was hiding in the library,” she said. “I didn’t want to be seen.”
The memory returns as she ponders her son’s future. On visits to some private schools, she feels a thrill when she sees classes of 10 students — but uneasy when she notices how few are Black. “I’m trying to focus on where he is now,” she said, “but I also have to think about the long term. … If I make decision A, what will it mean later?”
Now a staff member at Epiphany, where she attended middle school, Centeio counsels other Boston parents as they make their own school choices. Many opt for BPS, and flourish there.
She tells herself there is more than one right choice, and more than one place where her son can thrive. Her own journey ended well, at Smith College, where she felt safe and confident enough to soar.
Someday, she hopes, her son will feel that, too. But for now, she holds him close a little longer, in the lull before it all begins.