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When some black students spoke out about their sense of isolation within Boston Latin School this year, it should have surprised exactly no one.

Black students have been disappearing from Boston Latin School since racial quotas were first challenged in court two decades ago.

Though a minority recruiting program for a time helped stanch the losses, Boston public school officials abandoned those efforts after a few years and let their premier school become overwhelmingly white and Asian — just as the judge who heard the 1995 legal challenge had predicted it would.

Today, Boston Latin looks nothing like the rest of the Boston public school system to which it belongs.

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In an urban district that is overwhelmingly Latino, black, and poor, Boston Latin stands out: Just over a quarter of its students are poor, and more than three-quarters are white or Asian. Of the 2,430 students enrolled at Boston Latin this year, 514 come from a single neighborhood — West Roxbury, the Boston neighborhood that most resembles a suburb. Roxbury, the heart of the inner city, is home to just 67.

And unlike most other public schools, Boston Latin has well-heeled supporters looking out for its interests: An alumni association, founded in 1844 by an act of the Legislature, boasts a $39 million endowment, largely restricted to funding prizes and scholarships for Boston Latin graduates heading to elite colleges.

Though its sterling reputation puts it more in league with Phillips Academy than West Roxbury Academy, Boston Latin is a free public school — the best education money can’t buy, as some say. All Boston students have a shot at admission if they have the exam scores, grades, and savvy to compete for one of the 480 seats available each year. As a result, a disproportionate share of the city’s hopes are invested in Boston Latin. The lure of a Boston Latin diploma sustains many middle-class families through the years they might otherwise flee the uneven urban school system for suburban pastures.

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“It keeps families anchored to this city,” said Peter G. Kelly, president of the Boston Latin School Association, the alumni and friends group that supports the school. “It’s a place of aspiration for the pipefitter and the baker and the social worker’s kids. That’s my own story, as the son of a nurse and a civil servant.”

It’s a romantic notion, to which alumni cling, but it’s being challenged by today’s black students, who wonder why they are so outnumbered. The racial gap, visible for years in the halls of Boston Latin and in the demographic data kept by school officials, raises uncomfortable questions in a city already uncomfortable about race.

Why are so few of the children of pipefitters and bakers and social workers accepted to Boston Latin today black? What does it say about a city school system that its most celebrated school is so unrepresentative of the city?

“We’re just starting to talk about this now, and that suit was in the ’90s,” said Kim Janey, senior project director at Massachusetts Advocates for Children, which presses for equity reforms in the Boston public schools. “I don’t think enough attention has been paid to those numbers and what the response is. Are we concerned about diversity or not?”

Haverhill schools administrator Rashaun J. Martin, a Boston Latin alumnus, talked to a young boy in the hallway of the district’s Pentucket Lake Elementary School.
Haverhill schools administrator Rashaun J. Martin, a Boston Latin alumnus, talked to a young boy in the hallway of the district’s Pentucket Lake Elementary School.(Cheryl Senter for The Boston Globe)

The most competitive school

Change has never come easily to Boston Latin, whose founding in 1635 makes it the nation’s oldest school, “antedating Harvard College by more than a year,” as its website proudly notes. Of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, the school boasts, five went to Boston Latin.

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As the most competitive of the city’s three exam schools, outpacing Boston Latin Academy and O’Bryant School of Math and Science, it claims the top tier of students who take the entrance exam each year. But it’s the only one of the three that has seen minority enrollment plummet.

A Globe review of Boston public schools data from the 1995-1996 school year to the current year revealed the following:

■  The number of white students enrolled at Boston Latin today is almost exactly the same as it was 20 years ago — 1,156, down from 1,198 — even though the number of white applicants during that time fell 40 percent.

■  Black enrollment plummeted 60 percent though the number of black applicants dropped much less precipitously, 33 percent.

■  Asian students claimed the spaces once filled by black students and now make up 29 percent of the student body, up from 17 percent.

■  Latinos’ numbers remained roughly steady over 20 years, though their applications surged 88 percent, more than any other racial group. They had almost nothing to show for it.

Broader demographic shifts played a part, of course: The city’s school-age population dropped more among black students than among whites during that time. The black students who stayed in Boston opted, in greater numbers, for the charter schools that began opening in 1995. Private schools recruited some standout students of all races who received free test preparation training through programs like the nonprofit Steppingstone Academy.

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Today, black and Latino students make up 63 percent of the school-age children who live in Boston but leave its public schools for alternatives — whether in private, parochial, or charter schools, or special education or Metco programs in suburban public schools.

But none of that fully accounts for the changes at Boston Latin.

Twenty years after the courts invalidated the racial set-asides that had lifted black and Latino enrollment to 35 percent, Boston Latin’s student body of roughly 2,400 is now 11.6 percent Latino, 8.5 percent black, and 47 percent white. Districtwide, the Boston public schools are 42 percent Latino, 32 percent black, and 14 percent white.

That pattern is not unique to Boston. New York and other cities with similarly competitive public exam schools also saw minority admissions decline after affirmative action programs ended.

And the trend does not reflect diminished interest in Boston Latin compared with the other exam schools. It remains the top choice of students of every race who take the exam, a Globe review found. Since Boston Latin is the hardest of the three schools to get into, most students aim for it, even if they end up at another.

All of which leaves Boston public school officials in the same quandary they faced when race-based admissions were invalidated: If they aren’t allowed to consider diversity, how can they promote it? Boston Latin School accepts only the best of the best students, without regard to race.

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“You can’t question a meritocracy,” said Michael Contompasis, the former Boston Latin School headmaster who led the school through the era of lawsuits in the 1990s. “What you can question is, does every kid have a fair shake in the district to sit for the exam and hopefully gain admission to an exam school if they choose to go?”

“The thing that’s concerning to me,” Contompasis added. “is that the number of black and Hispanic kids who choose to go there is lower than it was. The school should be doing something to encourage kids to come. . . . How do we get the message out that this is an opportunity for kids? How do we increase the number of kids that choose to go there when they have a tremendous amount of options?”

Volunteers begin recruiting

For a few years, Boston Latin volunteers and faculty members thought they had found a way.

After the 1998 court ruling that found racial quotas at Boston Latin unconstitutional — upending an affirmative action system that had integrated the school for two decades — the school launched a new, free test preparation course called the Exam School Initiative. As part of the effort, volunteers began visiting the district’s elementary schools to recruit qualified black and Latino students and make sure they were in the running for Boston Latin.

At the time, school officials were concerned that many of their students were being edged out of contention for the exam schools by high-scoring students coming from parochial or private schools. The volunteers targeted public schools that had high minority enrollment and few students getting into exam schools, to make sure that minority students were aware of the opportunities and that their parents understood the process of getting them into this unusually competitive public school.

Kathleen Colby.
Kathleen Colby.(Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)

“A lot of parents would come in and had no idea this school even existed,” said Kathleen Colby, a mother of Latin School graduates who spearheaded the effort. Every March, the Exam School Initiative hosted an open house with hundreds of fifth-graders and their families — and translators on hand to communicate with them in at least seven languages.

“Some of the parents thought it was a private school and they never could have afforded the tuition,” Colby recalled. “We had parents in tears when they realized the opportunity that was being presented to their kids.”

Rashaun Martin, a Boston Latin alumnus, became part of the recruitment effort after he returned to teach history at Boston Latin in 2001.

“I was at somebody’s parent-teacher night five nights a week. I was vested. Trust me, it was like a campaign,” he recalled. “We said, ‘We want to be able to help share these opportunities, to help you share the message.’ And so we came.”

So did the black and Latino applicants, who began returning to Boston Latin in greater numbers in 2006. That year, an article in the alumni magazine credited the Exam School Initiative for helping reverse the trend in admissions.

A few years later, the outreach effort collapsed.

To hear the volunteers tell it, the reasons were mostly personal: Martin started a family and became principal of another school. Then-headmaster Cornelia Kelley, who had championed the program, retired.

There was, however, another factor: The program had become too big for volunteers to sustain, so the alumni association hired a faculty member to run it. But the faculty member, Mike Giordano, had other duties — coaching football, overseeing tutoring — and no one ever put recruitment on his list.

“I do what I’m asked to do by the city of Boston. BPS tells me to run an Exam School Initiative; that’s what I do,” said Giordano.

And so recruitment efforts ended and the Exam School Initiative continued solely as a test preparation course. Giordano stopped visiting elementary schools to explain the exam school system and his program stopped reaching out to black and Latino students.

The program’s focus shifted solely to boosting Boston public school students’ chances of getting in the exam schools -- and in that goal, it succeeded. Students raised in Boston’s public school system have claimed a majority of admissions at Boston Latin since 2010.

But these days, the ones who are taking advantage of the free test preparation course aren’t the ones the volunteers had sought. Forty-four percent of the students in the Exam School Initiative last year were white. Only 10 percent were black.

Giordano could not explain why no one tried to revive the recruitment effort.

“I get a list. I run a program,” he said. “That’s over my head.”

Kelley, the former headmaster, also could not explain why the outreach program ended after she retired.

“All I can share with you is my strong commitment to the ESI program that I and many others hoped would expand opportunities for underrepresented BPS students to access the three exam schools,” Kelley wrote in an e-mail.

City public school officials had little information about the history of the Exam School Initiative and could only provide budget information for it from the past three years. The program, initially funded by a federal grant of $430,000 a year, was taken over by the Boston Latin School Association, but funding has been uneven. This year, the association contributed $11,468, plus a portion of Giordano’s salary, while the Boston public schools contributed the remaining $52,850.

Superintendent Tommy Chang said he hopes to expand access to the Exam School Initiative, either by adding seats or changing the program’s admission criteria to look at more than just standardized tests.

Few students from Roxbury, Mattapan, and Dorchester currently participate in the Exam School Initiative, he noted, adding: “That’s just obviously not representative of the population of BPS and it is something that needs to be addressed. I’m hoping that we can address it sooner or later.”

The number of available seats in the program depends on funding. About 700 of the district’s 3,400 fifth-graders get invited to the program, based on their scores on standardized tests, and 450 sign up. Giordano said interested students never get turned away. But the program is also filled on a first-come, first-served basis, and neither he nor school officials could say whether more students might take advantage of the program, if more were invited to consider it.

“If it’s first-come, first-serve and there’s not an aggressive outreach like there was, you tend to get parents taking advantage of it who are informed — not necessarily the families that most need it and kids who need the opportunity,” said Craig Lankhorst, who worked with the Exam School Initiative years ago when he was a Boston elementary school principal.

“If our goal is closing the achievement gap,” Lankhorst added, “it’s not contributing to that.”

Students gathered to work on a problem in an 11th-grade advanced pre-calculus class.
Students gathered to work on a problem in an 11th-grade advanced pre-calculus class.(Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)

Preparation begins early

The road to Boston Latin is a narrow, complicated one, partly by design; prestigious schools seek only the most motivated achievers.

Admission to the exam schools is based on just two factors — students’ grades in school (in late fifth and early sixth grades) and their scores on the Independent School Entrance Examination (taken in sixth grade).

But really, the preparation begins long before that.

“In a place like West Roxbury, where I live, that child is no more than 3 months old and you know the route,” said Colby, a mother of grown Boston Latin alumni. “You know exactly what schools you want them in, what grades he needs to get there, what you need to do. It’s just part of the culture here in this area. . . . I wanted it to be part of every neighborhood’s culture and every parent’s understanding.”

As early as third grade, students are identified for exam school potential by their scores on the standardized TerraNova tests. Top performers are invited into Advanced Work Classes — intensive classrooms that separate high-achieving fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders from their lower-performing peers and put them on track for the exam schools.

Those courses are available in a smattering of schools — 14 of the 70 schools that have fourth grades, for instance — meaning that most students have to transfer if they want to participate.

But few students appear interested in transferring to some of the schools that provide Advanced Work Classes. In popular schools like the Condon, Curley, and Murphy, Advanced Work Classes are packed to capacity. In schools like the Hennigan, Jackson-Mann, and Lee K-8, about a dozen seats remain empty in each fourth grade. Of the 1,106 Advanced Work Class seats available this year, 179 were left empty.

The Advanced Work program has also long been criticized for creating inequities in classrooms: Whites and Asians dominate the accelerated classes, which offer the greatest learning potential and a track to the exam schools.

Advanced Work was one of the Boston public school programs faulted by a 2014 report on the achievement gap for black and Latino boys. That report, commissioned by the prior schools superintendent, found that white boys were enrolled in Advanced Work Classes at rates three to four times higher than blacks and Latinos. Asian boys’ rates were between four and five times higher.

The disparity is so great that some parents now want to do away with Advanced Work rather than separate children so early by track and by race.

The new superintendent, Chang, has acknowledged the inequities and has called for the more rigorous curriculum to be offered in every classroom within five years. Starting in the fall, Advanced Work will be expanded to all fourth-graders in four schools where it’s currently offered, extended in two, and a stronger curriculum will be offered in nine schools that don’t have Advanced Work Programs.

All these efforts in the early grades should make a difference to students who later aim for the exam schools, Chang said.

“Access to early education and early literacy will help you do better on the third-grade TerraNova, which tests literacy skills,” he said. “Based on how well you do on the TerraNova, you get into an Advanced Work Class, a more rigorous curriculum, which will also help you do well on the ISEE as well. It’s not just the Exam School prep, it’s the AWC. All these factors matter.”

They’re also linked. The same tests that determine students’ eligibility for the Advanced Work Classes determine who gets invited into the Exam School Initiative in fifth grade.

Boston public school officials do inform sixth-grade students with strong test scores that they are qualified to take the ISEE in an effort to encourage more participation. But the Exam School Initiative isn’t open only to Boston public school students. It’s open to anyone who lives in the city — as are the exam schools.

Teacher Betty Davis went over a problem in an 11th-grade advanced pre-calculus class.
Teacher Betty Davis went over a problem in an 11th-grade advanced pre-calculus class.(Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)

As a result, students educated in private and parochial schools through fifth grade can win entry into the district’s free test preparation program — and receive the training that was originally aimed at black and Latino public school students. The Exam School Initiative is also open to all, regardless of financial need, a point that rankles some.

Anne Yount, who founded a private test preparation and tutoring course in West Roxbury, said that policy changed over time; her son was not allowed to participate in the Exam School Initiative as a parochial school fifth-grader. But in the years that followed, when the alumni association reduced its contributions, the Boston public schools increased their own, and the offer was extended to the children of all taxpayers.

“If you are going to get disadvantaged kids into the exam school,” said Yount, “you need to stop subsidizing free ISEE test prep for people who are going away to Europe in the summer and live in condos [worth] over half a million dollars.”

Free test preparation is key, because expensive tutoring for the exams has become a cottage industry over the past two decades. Families angling for Boston Latin School routinely spend $1,200 for nine weeks’ worth of test preparation in English and math. That creates an uneven playing field among test competitors, said Yount.

“The test is an arms race,” she said. “The better you do on the test, the better your chances of getting in. . . . You can’t be sitting next to a kid who’s had 60-70 hours of test prep and you’ve had none and be able to compete with them.”

There are other hurdles, as well. The exam is only offered on a Saturday in a dozen schools across the city.

But the opportunity can be priceless. Rachel Skerritt, a black Boston Latin graduate, called Boston Latin an “entryway to selective colleges for families who wouldn’t have another avenue.”

“It certainly represented that for me and my family,” she said.

Skerritt later taught at the school, served as a trustee, and worked as chief of staff to the Boston public schools superintendent. Now a school principal in Washington, D.C., Skerritt can still name-check the Boston Latin alumnus who sponsored the program that first led her to visit the University of Pennsylvania, and the one who sponsored the financial prize that sent her to Penn.

“There’s a level of pride in the alumni community, as evidenced through the association, the robust support,” Skerritt said.

“All of those things are not endemic to high schools,” she added. “And that makes Latin School an extremely special place.”

Skerritt was one of those children who grew up hearing about Boston Latin from her family. Martin, the alumnus and former teacher, didn’t know anything about it when he was in middle school until an assistant principal mentioned the exam. His mother — a single mother who was only 28 at the time — knew as little about it as he did, he said.

Now a social studies supervisor in the Haverhill public schools, Martin speaks of what the city’s exam schools can do for a talented student coming from a challenging background.

“I credit Latin School for being one of the few institutions that made the difference in my life,” Martin said. “When I returned to the staff, I was always wondering how many other Rashaun Martins are out there?”


Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at stephanie.ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert