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Boston’s schools are becoming resegregated

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File

An alarming pattern of racial segregation has re-emerged in the Boston Public School system over the last two decades.

By Globe Staff 

An alarming pattern of racial segregation has re-emerged in the Boston Public School system over the last two decades, according to a Globe analysis, largely the consequence of steps taken by city and school officials to allow more students to attend schools in their neighborhoods as they did prior to court-ordered busing.

Nearly 60 percent of the city’s schools meet the definition of being intensely segregated — meaning students of color occupy at least 90 percent of the seats. Two decades ago, 42 percent of schools were intensely segregated. Many of these schools are low performing.

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All the while, the shifting student population is slowly creating more schools where the majority of students are white, climbing over the past two decades from two schools to five.

The resegregation of the school system, which many advocates have been monitoring with frustration for years, is raising fears that the city could wind up with the wide disparities in academic programs, enrichment opportunities, and resources that existed prior to court-ordered desegregation in the 1970s, when majority-white schools had more robust offerings than those attended mostly by black and Latino students.

“This is devastating,” said City Council President Andrea Campbell of the Globe’s findings. “Not only does there need to be a sense of urgency to address this, but there also has to be a willingness to try new things. From where I sit, it’s important for every student and family who chooses to enter the system to have a spot at a quality school, but that is not currently happening in Boston.”

The majority-white schools are emerging in the same neighborhoods that had them prior to court-ordered desegregation. At the Perry K-8 in South Boston, more than 60 percent of students are white, the highest in the system, the Globe review found. The other majority-white schools are the Eliot K-8 in the North End, the Lyndon and Kilmer K-8s in West Roxbury, and the Warren-Prescott K-8 in Charlestown.

Collectively, these five schools educate about 1,400 white students, accounting for 18 percent of all Caucasians enrolled in the system. The largest number of white students in any single school in the system, about 1,125, attend Boston Latin School, filling 46 percent of seats there.

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Overall, white students make up 14 percent of the school system’s enrollment, down 2 percentage points from two decades ago.

The gaps in performance and opportunities at majority-white schools and intensely segregated ones can be stark, according to the Globe review.

For instance, on the premiere of the revamped MCAS test in 2017, 52 percent of students at the Eliot met or exceeded expectations in English and 57 percent did in math, beating state averages in both subjects. At the King K-8 school, where students of color fill nearly all the seats, 8 percent of students met or exceeded expectations in English and 6 percent did in math.

Eliot parents also raise tens of thousands of dollars for Italian, music, art, robotics, and other programs. Less than a quarter of Eliot students live in poverty. By contrast, over three-quarters of students at the King school live in households receiving government assistance, making fund-raising more difficult.

In a city where the wounds of court-ordered desegregation still linger, city leaders have shown little appetite to upend the school system and create more diverse schools as part of a strategy to close gaps in achievement and educational opportunity.

When Boston overhauled its school assignment system five years ago, achieving racial balance in its schools was not even part of the equation, as then-Mayor Thomas M. Menino, school officials, and an advisory committee were intent on moving the system back to more neighborhood schools, which had defined the city prior to desegregation.

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Mayor Martin J. Walsh two years ago also halted an effort to overhaul admission requirements at the city’s exam schools as tensions began flaring among families after the Globe reported that an advisory group was quietly looking at ways to increase diversity by moving beyond a strict reliance on test scores and grade-point averages.

Yet a few hundred miles away in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio has been gaining headlines for pushing proposals to foster integration in that city’s highly segregated system. De Blasio is pushing to scrap entrance exams for the city’s elite high schools and has proposed reserving a portion of seats at high-performing schools for students with low test scores, angering scores of Asian-American and middle-class white parents.

“I think Boston is a sad case,” said Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California Los Angeles. “I find that Boston is the least interested in talking about race and social issues. People want to be satisfied with the status quo and don’t want to think about the long term. . . . If you want a school system that prepares students for life, you have to think about diversity. Students need to learn how to function across racial and ethnic lines.”

While the Boston school system doesn’t have enough white students to integrate every school, the system still has enough of them to create more racially diverse schools than what currently exist, said Orfield, whose institute was formerly located at Harvard University.

But he warned, “if you begin to resegregate, it gains momentum.”

Laura Perille, interim superintendent of the Boston schools, defended the way Boston assigns students to schools and the resulting racial and ethnic composition of the city’s schools. She noted that school demographics generally reflect the segregated housing patterns that exist across the city and that there are only so many white students to spread around the district’s 124 schools.

“A lot of these schools are affirmatively chosen by families and students by the fact they are close to home,” said Perille, who served on an advisory committee five years ago that developed the current assignment system. “From our perspective at the BPS, we educate all the children who come to us and celebrate their extraordinary diversity however that breaks down.”

She pointed out that among students of color there is tremendous racial, ethnic, and linguistic diversity, which in turn helps to create an enriching learning environment in all the city’s schools.

And she added the school system is piloting a new way of distributing donations and partnerships with outside organizations to its schools that takes into consideration socioeconomic and other indicators in an attempt to help balance out those with the wherewithal to fund-raise and those that don’t.

The Boston school system has experienced some notable shifts in demographics over the past two decades, as enrollment has shrunk by about 8,300 students to 55,500 in the last school year. While the portion of students of color has remained largely the same during that time, there has been one notable shift within that population: the emergence of Latinos as the largest demographic group.

There are actually many white children living in the city, but most are bypassing public institutions in favor of private schools, some of which bus students outside the city, or they eventually move to the suburbs for better schools. More than 26,000 residents under the age of 18 are white, according to US Census data provided by the city.

The Globe review follows a report released by a Northeastern University research institute in July that revealed many black and Latino students have been locked out of the city’s highest-performing elementary and K-8 schools, while many white students who tend to live closer to those schools have been gaining admission to them.

The Northeastern study examined changes the school district enacted four years ago that increased the pool of schools families can choose from that are close to their homes and consequently found the new admission process was slightly increasing segregation in the city’s school system when compared to the years right before the change.

Julia Meija, who grew up in Boston during court-ordered busing, said she has “seen little progress in Boston as it relates to integrating black, brown, and white students” in the city’s school system.

Meija, who has a daughter at Charlestown High School, had hoped her 8-year-old daughter could have attended either the Henderson Inclusion School or the Murphy K-8 — two highly regarded schools in Dorchester with a strong racial mix of students — but did not get a spot under the city’s school assignment system. She instead enrolled her daughter at a charter school, which like most other charter schools in Boston has a significant number of black and Latino students and is considered intensely segregated.

“Segregation is real and it will continue to persist until there is political will to rethink what schools look like so they are more mixed by race and income,” said Meija, who is director of the Collaborative Parent Leadership Action Network, which includes families from the school system and charter schools. “Why not send some of the white students into lower performing schools in Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan?”

Boston, like many other urban systems nationwide, has struggled to strike the right racial balances in its schools. A series of court rulings and legal challenges nationwide in the 1990s and early 2000s created a murky legal landscape that left many school officials wondering whether they could use race as a factor at all in school assignments, and so many, including Boston, abandoned them.

The Obama administration, in the interest of preventing racial isolation and fostering more diverse classrooms, issued guidelines in 2011 that encouraged creating proxies for race, such as ZIP codes, in school assignment systems and in some narrow cases allowed the use of race. But the Trump administration in July rescinded those guidelines, complicating the issue again.

Some Boston parents and civil rights advocates argue that the city gave up too quickly on school integration and missed a golden opportunity during the Obama years to recommit to desegregation. Instead, they say, city and school officials opted to re-engineer the admission process in a misguided quest for more neighborhood-like schools.

“It’s frustrating,” said Mary Battenfeld, a member of the grass-roots parent group, Quality Education for Every Student. “I hope the city commits to solving this problem.”

The Globe analysis started with the 1997-98 school year, one of the final years Boston used race as a factor in assigning students to schools. At the time, Boston divided the city into three assignment zones for preschool through grade eight and the racial makeup of each school was not supposed to move 10 percentage points higher or lower than the average for its assignment zone.

But in 1999, the School Committee voted to end those racial balancing efforts at all its schools for the following fall. In the years leading up to the decision, the school system faced lawsuits from white families over racial quotas at Boston Latin School.

All the while, Menino, who served from 1993 to 2014, repeatedly called for a return to neighborhood schools while also decrying ballooning busing costs. His final push resulted in the School Committee voting in 2013 to abolish the three assignment zones, which had been operating without the racial quotas.

Under the new system, enacted in 2014, a computerized system developed by MIT allows students to apply to any school within a roughly one-mile radius of their home and guarantees them at least six school choices of varying quality. If there are not enough nearby schools, the computerized system will grab some farther away.

Tanisha Sullivan, president of the Boston chapter of the NAACP, urged city and school leaders to immediately appoint a task force to examine school segregation and recommend steps to end it.

“It’s concerning to me that we have a policy that by virtue of data is telling us that it is not helping us to increase school quality for all students and it is potentially leading us down a path of segregation,” she said. “We have to remain focused on implementing strategies that support desegregation.”

Wanda Marie Robinson, who is helping to raise her granddaughter, has seen the extremes. Her granddaughter attended the Mattahunt Elementary School, an intensely segregated school in Mattapan that the state designated as underperforming in 2012. The teaching was of poor quality and textbooks, supplies, and other materials were scarce, she said. The School Committee closed the school in 2017 to avoid state receivership, forcing students to transfer.

The school her granddaughter got into for last fall was low performing and intensely segregated. Dirty words were scrawled in the bathroom. Students wanted to pick fights. Robinson began hunting for another school and discovered the Kenny Elementary School in Dorchester had one fourth-grade seat open. The principal invited her for a tour and was there to welcome her.

She was immediately impressed with what the school had to offer — music lessons, a new playground, a garden, and athletics — and its diverse student population that boasted a strong mix of Asian, black, Latino, and white students.

“She was downtrodden when she got there, but the Kenny brought back some of her dignity,” she said. “The teachers are seasoned, loving, and caring. She brings homework home. Every time you turn around, there’s a letter coming home inviting you to this family night or that event.”

She wonders why more of the city’s schools can’t be like that, noting that too often “the education in the Boston Public Schools . . . does not bring students of color in the inner city an inch closer to what they need to carry them forward in the world.”

“I cry for the children in the inner city,” she said, “because I know they are not getting what they need.”


James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com
Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.