Boston Latin School has been around for nearly four centuries, but the scene that unfolded on Thursday may have been an unwelcome first.
First came a tense meeting between the faculty, Mayor Marty Walsh, and School Superintendent Tommy Chang. When it concluded, some teachers and administrators reportedly refused to stand behind the mayor and superintendent, their bosses, during a postmeeting press conference. Instead, they posed for a group picture with beleaguered headmaster Lynne Mooney Teta, who quit Tuesday, and assistant headmaster Malcolm Flynn, who submitted his resignation Wednesday in solidarity with Teta.
If the meeting was meant to foster unity, it clearly failed. The faculty’s near mutiny on the school’s front steps certainly wasn’t what Walsh and Chang had in mind.
The resignations by Teta and Flynn followed months of tension over a series of racial incidents at the storied high school. A federal investigation of racial incidents at BLS is currently underway, as is a City Hall review.
Depending on your point of view, Teta's resignation letter was either an expression of deep frustration, or a complete refusal to take any responsibility for the tension that has roiled the exam school. Maybe both.
“It is my belief that our school and our efforts have been unfairly judged, for reasons that go beyond the walls of BLS,” she wrote. “It is unfortunate that at a time when Boston Latin School has made tangible progress to combat racism in our community through constructive dialogue fostered by the student body, others outside the school continue to condemn us, denounce us, and hold us responsible for district policies and practices over which the school has no control.”
In an interview Wednesday, Chang said he was surprised when Teta called him to say she was quitting. He said he believed the school had been making progress in dealing with racial tension. Chang defended Teta as an exceptional educator, though he doesn’t seem to have discouraged her from leaving.
Chang said the most important quality in a new leader is understanding the culture of the school, and how to navigate its many constituencies.
“I think it’s super-important that whoever is the headmaster begin and continue the process of bringing in multiple stakeholders,” he said. “You need someone who wants to lead a very public conversation about what Boston Latin needs to be.”
I can’t help feeling a bit sorry for Chang, an outsider who has landed in a quintessentially Boston dispute. As an elite institution in a system that is anything but, Boston Latin is both cherished and resented. Add race to the mix, and you have a high-stakes war that simply wouldn’t happen in many other cities.
Chang and Walsh were attacked for not doing enough to support Boston Latin, and those charges have some merit. Both could have been faster to recognize how explosive the issue of racism at Latin could become. It is understandable that some people feel frustrated over what they see as a tepid response — and little concrete action — on students’ concerns.
At the same time, the problems at Boston Latin are not simple, and replacing Teta won’t be enough to fix them. Latin has been getting less diverse since its affirmative action program was ruled illegal nearly 20 years ago. The preparatory program that was meant to fill the void, the Exam School Initiative, has gotten uneven support and yielded indifferent results.
No wonder the shrinking population of black students feels marginalized; that goes hand in hand with a diminished presence. But black students at Latin have also suffered from official indifference to their complaints, and that’s on the adults.
Chang stressed that changing a culture is difficult and takes time. That’s true, but it can’t become an excuse for an unacceptable status quo. Building a truly inclusive Boston Latin is a task that can’t wait.
“The reality is there’s a lot of work that needs to be done,” Chang said. “The experience of those young people needs to be transformed. And, whoever is the next leader, that work has to begin.”