Inside Boston Latin School on a recent Saturday, educators presented a diverse crowd of fifth-graders a golden opportunity: admission to a free, two-week summer test-preparation program that could help them get into one of the city’s prestigious exam schools.
For the second year in a row, in the hopes of boosting diversity, school officials nearly doubled the number of seats in the program, inviting not just those with the top standardized test scores but also promising students from forgotten corners of the city.
“We’re here because the district and three exam schools have recognized that we need to do a better job increasing the number of . . . underrepresented students that attend the exam schools,” interim headmaster Michael Contompasis told the crowd.
But the effort has yet to bear fruit at Boston Latin. The graduating class of 2023 is expected to look very much like the student body does now.
Of the 495 students invited to enter Boston Latin’s seventh grade next fall, 39 — just 8 percent — are black, the same percentage as this year’s student body. Fourteen percent are Hispanic, up slightly from this year’s 12 percent in the school’s population overall.
School officials said it will take time to build momentum and they have taken steps this year to build awareness among disadvantaged communities about the opportunity that the exam schools present their children.
“You can’t do this in one year,” said Contompasis. “It’s not going to happen this year and it’s not going to happen next year. But I think that it’s doable.”
The disparity in diversity became a concern last year after black students exposed racial tensions and harassment through a social media campaign called “#BlackatBLS.” The latest admissions numbers continue to disappoint advocates who say that school officials, who have spent years strategizing on how to close the achievement gap districtwide, are still not acting with urgency.
“It hasn’t gone far enough. The district seems to be hesitant to really target underrepresented groups,” said longtime educator Barbara Fields. She and about 30 other educators, parents, and activists have launched Boston Network for Black Student Achievement, a group that plans to pressure the schools to more aggressively focus on disparities in the system.
“What we feel is needed is for the district to really take that seriously and put some real will behind it,” Fields said.
The school district focused on expanding the Exam School Initiative, the academic boot camp held at Boston Latin every summer. That program was created in 2000 after court rulings forced the schools to stop using race as a criterion for admissions. Volunteers, concerned about the sudden drop in diversity that followed, began reaching out to black and Latino families to boost awareness and find recruits, then groom students to take the entrance exams.
The program was free and never racially exclusive. But over time, recruitment of minority students ended. By 2014, the program aimed at diversifying had itself become racially skewed: 72 percent of participants were white and Asian, while only 10 percent were black, and 14 percent, Latino.
“That program itself was broken,” said Colin Rose, Boston Public Schools assistant superintendent for opportunity and achievement gaps. “It was opening up the achievement gap.”
Last year, officials expanded the program beyond its maximum 450 students, chosen for their top standardized test scores. An additional 300 seats were created for students who didn’t make the cut on tests but demonstrated promise or grit.
Though the outreach didn’t directly target black and Latino students, it went after the schools they were attending that weren’t sending many candidates to the initiative.
No one had expected an immediate fix to a stubborn societal problem. Still, some observers were disappointed that the district didn’t aim higher or propose more sweeping changes.
“What they did was slap a Band-Aid on it in order to mollify public outcry and then said, ‘Now that no one’s looking we’ll go back to doing what we were doing before,’ ” said Anne Yount, who runs the Boston Tutoring Center and trains many exam school candidates. “I am frankly shocked that they didn’t sit down and take a good hard look at the program, who it was serving and who it should be serving, totally revamp it, and go out there with changes.”
Rushing at the end of the tumultuous last school year, officials recruited only about half the additional 300 students they had sought for the program. They said their methodology was not set in stone and that they would consider future changes.
But the sophomore effort is being run the same way. Again this year, the school has not yet been able to recruit 300 additional students.
Asked why, Rose pointed to principals, who have not yet nominated students, though the district has reached out repeatedly.
“It is not something that has traditionally been part of the schools’ culture,” in many places, he said. He noted that the principals may have “a million other priorities as a school leader.”
Getting into an exam school relies entirely on two factors: grade point averages and entrance exam scores. But it also requires a certain amount of savvy to prepare along the way. Most students hire tutors to prepare for the rigorous exam, which doesn’t cover the same material as the Boston Public Schools.
“What you might not know is the curriculum at these schools doesn’t necessarily cover the things going into this test,” Rose told the families gathered at the recent open house. “We cannot send our children into this exam blind if we expect them to do well.”
That’s what concerns civil rights leaders, who say the school’s assignment criteria can create barriers for disadvantaged families.
“Public education is a public good, and your admission to the top public school in our city shouldn’t be premised upon your ability to pay for preparation,” said Matt Cregor, education project director for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice.
Last year, Superintendent Tommy Chang formed a group to explore changes to the exam school admissions criteria to boost enrollment of black and Latino students. The Boston School Committee also approved a policy that called for revising the exam schools’ admissions policies to increase opportunities for students of color.
But Mayor Martin J. Walsh nixed the idea.
“I don’t think it’s the right time to be talking about it,” Walsh said in July.
At the time, Boston Latin was embroiled in turmoil over the sudden departure of its headmaster and assistant headmaster. The US Attorney’s office had documented a climate of racial discrimination at the school and found that staff had failed to properly address student complaints.
Talk of changes to the exam school admissions policy revisions ended there — except among the civil rights activists, who continue to press the tradition-bound school for change. They also have asked the schools to revisit grading, which varies widely between public, charter, and private schools and, they believe, could be putting public school students at a disadvantage.
Yount, the private tutor, said the Exam School Initiative should be limited to public school students — possibly only disadvantaged students — so that the students who most need help can benefit.
Boston Latin and school district staff are taking other steps to try to welcome black and Latino students, who might otherwise feel isolated. They trained student ambassadors who speak nine languages, to lead tours of the school for interested families. And faculty personally called every student of color invited to attend, offering them answers to any questions and inviting them to the recent open house.
“We’ve got to take some time and build this thing back up,” Contompasis said. “People are buying into it.”
Those people included Maria Gomes, and her son, Dasani Silva, a Trotter Elementary School fifth-grader whose teacher has been pushing both of them.
“She inspired me to try to give my kids what I didn’t have growing up,” said Gomes, 33, noting she was well into her own education at Madison Park High School when she realized she could have applied for the competitive O’Bryant School right next door.
“I remember asking, ‘How come I never heard of that school?’ ” said Gomes, a Cape Verdean mother of two. “How come that wasn’t an option to me?”