Metro

Boston boosts diversity in preparing for exam school tests

Mischa McLean sat in Shirley Jones-Luke's class in a program that helps fifth-graders prepare for the rigorous entrance exam to Boston’s three exam schools.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
Mischa McLean sat in Shirley Jones-Luke's class in a program that helps fifth-graders prepare for the rigorous entrance exam to Boston’s three exam schools.

For the past two weeks, Jonathan Narsjo spent sunny mornings inside stuffy classrooms, solving geometry problems and testing his reading comprehension — all to prepare for the exam he’ll have to ace this year if he wants to get into Boston Latin School.

It was a relief to his mother, Christine, who had searched for a similar program for her older son last summer.

“I wish this were available last year,” she told a school official last week.

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Little did she know it was.

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The Exam School Initiative, a test preparation course for sixth-grade students who want to apply to the district’s exam schools, has been around since 2000. But until this year, a lot of students — and some Boston Public Schools officials — had never heard of it.

After a bruising school year at Boston Latin School — where students raised concerns about racism and school officials acknowledged a dramatic drop in diversity — the school system made a concerted effort to recruit black and Latino students to the Exam School Initiative.

In the spring, they put out the call for an additional 300 students, recruiting specifically from the elementary schools that were hardly sending anyone to the program. The district didn’t reach that goal, attracting 225, but officials hope to build on the progress.

“It’s a step. There’s a lot more to do. It’s a step,” said Michael Contompasis, the interim headmaster of Boston Latin.

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Many families spend thousands of dollars on private tutors to train their children to take the exams, but the Exam School Initiative is free. It was formed as an academic boot camp, aimed at maintaining minority attendance after the courts did away with racial quotas two decades ago.

But the program relied largely on volunteers, whose numbers dwindled with time, and the program’s director stopped visiting elementary schools to promote the initiative and recruit students. That director, Michael Giordano, told the Globe in April that no one ever told him to monitor the racial makeup of the program.

“I do what I’m asked to do by the City of Boston,” Giordano said at the time.

Even some teachers in the district didn’t know about the prep program.

Colin Rose, who taught math at the Higginson/Lewis K-8 School, which Narsjo’s sons attend, encouraged students to apply to the exam schools but was unaware of the test prep effort that would have helped their chances. “All those years as a teacher, I sent these kids in blind. I regret that,” said Rose, now assistant superintendent, charged with closing opportunity and achievement gaps for the Boston Public Schools. “I had no clue about this program until I came into this position.”

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By 2014, participants in the Exam School Initiative had become 44 percent white and 28 percent Asian. Only 24 percent of participants that year were black or Latino. Those numbers were dramatically out of sync with the district’s population. The Boston Public Schools that year were overwhelmingly Latino and black, while whites made up just 14 percent of students and Asians under 9 percent.

“Things slide so easily,” said Rose. “Equity is an intentional act, day to day.”

Dennis Satchek, one of the students participating in the Exam School Initiative, worked on a test.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
Dennis Satchek, one of the students participating in the Exam School Initiative, worked on a test.

The district’s efforts this year seem to have reversed that trend: Forty-six percent of participating students this summer were black or Latino, 28 percent white, and 20 percent Asian.

“We’re excited,” said Mayor Martin J. Walsh. “At least at first glance, the breakdown is where we want to be as far as giving the kids the testing opportunities and the training opportunities. Certainly we’re setting a lot more kids up for success.”

Inside Boston Latin classrooms last week, students leaned over thick work books, detailing how they deduced the answers to the multiple-choice questions for the Independent School Entrance Exam. They had to be on their toes. A math teacher called on her students at random, asking them to calculate the degrees of each angle of a triangle.

Tanisha Charles offered the right answer but froze when trying to explain how she got it. Still, the 11-year-old who wants to be a doctor said math is her strength. “Math is easy to me,” she said, “But for English and language arts, I kind of have trouble. It’s helping a little bit.”

The program, run at Boston Latin School, was previously capped at 450 students, who qualified based on standardized test scores. The additional students were invited based on recommendations from teachers, principals, and others, from schools that were underrepresented at the program.

“One of the cool things we did was kind of leave it up to the schools,” said Rose. “This kid has grit; this kid is probably going to apply to an exam school.”

School officials announced an expansion of the program only at the end of April, days after a Globe story examined how Boston Latin School — and the Exam School Initiative — had become overwhelmingly white over the years.

Whether the extra test preparation will help more minority students win entry to the competitive exam schools remains to be seen.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
Gabriella Gilbert taught a math class at the Exam School Initiative.

Admission to Boston’s three exam schools — Boston Latin, Boston Latin Academy, and the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science — is based on students’ scores on the rigorous entrance exam, as well as their grade point averages in school.

The Globe reported in July that a school advisory committee was looking at potential changes to admissions criteria to restore diversity at Boston Latin. But the mayor immediately disavowed that plan, and many Boston Latin alumni, proud of their school’s longstanding tradition of excellence, resist changes to admissions criteria for fear of lowering standards.

“I’m not looking at changing the assignment system at Latin School. They’re exam schools for a reason,” Walsh said Friday, saying he wanted to improve the district’s other secondary schools so they are more attractive options.

Instead, administrators are considering changes that could reduce barriers that keep poor students out of Boston Latin. This summer, for the first time, the district provided free transportation to the Exam School Initiative as well as free breakfast and lunch.

Following the two-week program, the initiative invites students to Saturday classes in the fall. School officials are thinking creatively about how to make sure students show up for those classes, and the exam itself: sending automated phone calls to students’ houses; urging ministers to remind congregations from the pulpit; and working with social service agencies to network with parents, particularly those who don’t speak English.

For the first time this fall, the district will provide weekend bus transportation to testing sites, said Superintendent Tommy Chang. And in the future, the district may be able to hold the exam on a weekday to eliminate logistical hurdles.

“We want to build on the work that we did this year,” Chang said. “We don’t want to let up.”

In the past, student awareness and participation in the free test prep program have been uneven. Data provided by the Boston Public Schools show that in 2014, the program was packed with students from certain schools — Josiah Quincy Elementary, Joyce Kilmer K-8, and Richard J. Murphy K-8, for instance.

Not a single student came from Higginson-Lewis School. The year Narsjo’s older boy qualified for the program, no one told her the option was even available.

“I didn’t know anything about it,” said Narsjo. “I went to the school and repeatedly asked about it. I felt like some type of prep course would have really helped him to get past his anxiety and take the exam.”

This year, after the push by the Boston Public Schools, a teacher alerted her to the program for her 11-year-old, Jonathan.

“There’s a lot of pieces of paper coming home,” Narsjo said. “I think for something like this it’s so important to make sure that that information is really communicated to the parents.”

Students lined up in the hallway at Boston Latin School to switch classrooms during a break last week.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
Students lined up in the hallway at Boston Latin School to switch classrooms during a break last week.

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