After a year of racial tension and scrutiny, students arriving at Boston Latin School on Thursday expressed hope that the new year would bring a new sense of calm for the city’s elite high school.
Ninth-grader Emma Stratman said she is optimistic that interim headmaster Michael Contompasis, who is taking over the school after Lynne Mooney Teta’s resignation, will use his experience to ease the tension. Contompasis previously led Boston Latin for more than two decades.
“I really liked Headmaster Mooney Teta, but I hope that whoever takes over this year — I know he was actually my dad’s headmaster — keeps us sort of out of the media,” Stratman said. “I hope he’s also progressive in maybe an affirmative action program, or maybe finding a way to settle everything.”
Stratman was one of the district’s nearly 57,000 students at 125 schools returning to class Thursday for the 2016-2017 academic year. The School Department said there were no big transportation problems, although a number of late buses were reported — a common issue on the first day.
Superintendent Tommy Chang, who is entering his second year leading the district, began his day with Mayor Martin J. Walsh at New Mission High School and Boston Community Leadership Academy in Hyde Park, where they handed out pencils and stickers that said “I love Boston Public Schools.”
Later on, Chang popped by the Curley K-8 School in Jamaica Plain. The Curley is a focal point of an initiative Chang is launching to expand access to rigorous learning that has been a hallmark of the school system’s Advanced Work Classes — a three-year intensive program for elementary school students that serves as a gateway to the city’s three exam schools.
Boston students take a standardized test at the end of the third grade to determine whether they get into the program.
“One of those things we hope to show you is the incredible results that can happen when you let students come and be integrated,” Chang said. “It’s all about creating inclusive environments for young people.”
The new initiative is called Excellence for All and is offered to fourth-graders at about a dozen schools.
The Curley has long been concerned that the advanced work program segregated students by race and ability levels and believed that all students could benefit from having access to a rigorous curriculum.
This year, all fourth-graders are taking those kinds of classes together. No longer are friendships split apart during the school day because some students got into the program and others did not.
Katie Grassa, principal at the Curley, said parents should not worry about lessons getting watered down as teachers attempt to reach students in one class who have wide ranges in academic abilities.
“It’s about having the best adults in the classrooms,” she said. “We have them here.”
Jeremy Nesoff, whose two sons attend the Curley and whose daughter is at Latin School, said he was happy to see students of different abilities being integrated into the same classrooms.
“The inequities that can be seen in AWC is stark in terms of race and class,” Nesoff said. “Something needed to be done about it.”
While students are fully mixed in the fourth grade at the Curley, the fifth and sixth grades are still grouped by ability, often creating a racial divide.
In a fifth-grade advanced work class Thursday, students — most of them white — were getting to know one another through a math exercise in which students use numbers to describe themselves. Next door, another group of fifth-graders worked on a similar assignment, but that was a general education class with few white students.
Boston is pursuing other improvement efforts, such as adding 216 pre-kindergarten seats and offering students at 15 schools the opportunity to use “tap cards” on their buses so their parents can check online where they are getting on and off the buses.
At Boston Latin, in the Fenway, students and faculty are hoping for a return to normalcy following the racial rift.
“I just hope it’s very low key and very calm,” said Declan Dwyer, a sophomore. “I just hope the students are happier, and it’s just a better place for everyone.”
Parents interviewed outside the school agreed. Lyudmyla Zaitsev, whose daughter Victoria is entering the ninth grade, said she hopes students will be able to focus on their studies once again.
“I used to be a teacher, so I just know what they’re going through and I know it’s really hard for everyone, it’s really hard for the kids, too,” Zaitsev said. “I’m just hoping the whole atmosphere will be quiet, peaceful, and they will just study at such a successful school. I think they will do the best they can.”