As Boston schools Superintendent Tommy Chang rolled out a broad-ranging slate of goals for his first months in office last week, one objective garnered special scrutiny.
School Committee members and parents have voiced both support and concerns regarding Chang’s proposal to expand access to advanced-work classes to all interested students, ending a policy that determines admission based upon standardized test results.
School Committee member Meg Campbell said she was wary of any policy that would separate children at such a young age based on their perceived abilities.
“There’s just really no research that supports tracking children in elementary school,” she said in a phone interview Friday. “It’s just an outmoded practice. It’s like bloodletting.”
Advanced-work classes demand additional classwork and homework from students in grades 4 through 6, and have more rigorous standards. And, in some schools, advanced-work students spend the entire academic day apart from general education students, but at others, the children are separate only for specific coursework, according to the School Department.
Campbell said advanced-work classes have become “a brand, and people in the school district have sold it for years” to encourage middle-income families to keep their children in Boston’s public schools rather than taking them elsewhere.
Instead of widening the gateway to the program, more demanding work should be given to all children, she said, with additional support for those who need it.
That is one possible outcome of the planning process Chang is launching, according to Mary Driscoll, a former Boston principal who recently became one of eight principal leaders under Chang and is spearheading his effort to expand advanced-work classes, termed “AWC” by educators.
“It could be that we end with AWC for all,” she said, explaining that Chang will assemble a diverse group of stakeholders to consider options for expanding access to rigorous coursework.
As city schools have shifted to curriculums based on Common Core standards, Driscoll said, math classes in general education already have caught up to the accelerated pace previously reserved for advanced-work classes, and the gap is shrinking in other subjects as well.
She said Chang’s priority is to move beyond a policy that determines a child’s academic future by the results of a single exam.
“I think the fact that the decision is made based on a test they take for one day in October of third grade doesn’t really feel like we are accessing all of the available data on a particular child’s ability to succeed,” Driscoll said.
Of the district’s 43 elementary schools and 31 K-8 schools, fewer than two dozen offered advanced-work classes in the past school year.
Sapna Padte, whose children attend the Patrick Lyndon Pilot School, said her concern is not access to advanced-work classes, but the widespread belief that those courses are the most likely pathway to acceptance at one of Boston’s three exam schools, believed by many parents to be virtually the only options for a quality, public high school education in the city.
“That’s the endgame for people,” said Padte, 42. “This is all about figuring out how to get to that endgame.”
School Department data shows, though, that of Boston public school students who are accepted into the exam schools, 39 percent come from schools that do not offer advanced work classes and that many who attended schools that offer the program did not participate.
Overall, just 46 percent of Boston students accepted to exam schools were advanced-work students.
The same data show racial disparities in advanced-work acceptance.
Though 37 percent of fourth- through sixth-grade students were black and 42 percent were Hispanic, those students were enrolled in advanced-work at rates similar to white students, who made up just 12 percent of the population, and Asian students, who accounted for just 8 percent.
Johnny R. McInnis II, president of the Black Educators’ Alliance of Massachusetts, said he supports any policy that could help close that gap.
“More students of color should have the same benefit,” McInnis said. “It should be broader, and not just a select few students.”
Angie Camacho, whose son attends the Hernández K-8 School, said she supports expanding access to rigorous coursework, but new efforts to prepare children for life’s challenges need to begin long before fourth grade.
“It is putting the cart before the horse,” said Camacho, 40. “Before we can get to advanced-work class, we really need to have some early intervention.”
Lee Franty, an advanced-work English teacher at the Murphy K-8 School who serves on Chang’s transition team, said he was confident the superintendent would assemble a broad range of parents, educators, and students to map a route to increased opportunities for all children.
“I don’t think this is going to be something,” he said, “where someone works in a room with a lot of higher-ups in the School Department and they conjure something up and present it.”