Incoming Boston Public Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius could soon find herself ensnared in a legal dispute over one of the most polarizing debates in the school system: Whether to change admission requirements to Boston Latin and other exam schools in an effort to increase student diversity.
Cassellius, who begins July 1, was pulled into the dispute Wednesday after the Lawyers for Civil Rights and the NAACP sent a letter to her, Mayor Martin J. Walsh, and the School Committee that asked them to overhaul the admission requirements to the city’s three exam schools, which exclusively rely on students’ grade point averages and performance on a standardized test to determine admission to elite private schools.
“There are many alternative admissions policies that would support a high-performing student body while resulting in a less discriminatory impact,” the letter said. “As such, the current admission policy for Boston’s exam schools likely violates both federal and state law.”
Failure to ensure that the schools’ policies do not discriminate, the letter noted, “not only results in legal violations, but also creates racial isolation.”
The seven-page letter, which largely read like a legal brief, asked officials to let the civil rights organizations know within 14 days “what changes, if any, you are willing to make.” Lawyers for Civil Rights said in an interview that all legal options are on the table.
“At this point our kids can’t wait any longer,” said Lauren Sampson, a fellow with the lawyers group, in an interview. “Every school year that goes by, another group of children are deprived of an opportunity.”
School officials and Walsh are reviewing the letter.
“Every child deserves an equitable and excellent education,” Dan O’Brien, a school spokesman, said in a statement. “The Boston Public Schools is committed to ensuring all children are successful. We value all voices within our community.”
Boston school officials have repeatedly resisted calls in recent years to overhaul the admission requirements — the mere mention of which often stirs heated debate. Just three months ago, Interim Superintendent Laura Perille attempted to distance herself from remarks she made at a City Council hearing, where she disclosed her administration was looking at the possibility of replacing the entrance test, emphasizing the district’s priority was on other measures, such as making the test accessible to more black and Latino students.
Previously, former superintendent Tommy Chang had to disband a working group he created in 2016 to look at changing exam-school admission requirements after Walsh publicly shot down the idea, arguing the time was not right. Chang started the effort while Boston Latin School was enmeshed in controversy over racial discrimination that some black students had experienced there, sparking a federal probe that found the Civil Rights Act had been violated. That controversy, which erupted six months after Chang started, hung over the rest of his tenure.
The racial makeup of the exam schools’ student body is significantly different from the district as a whole. For instance, while black students make up 30.9 percent of district enrollment, they represent just 7.5 percent of students at Latin School and 20.9 percent at Latin Academy, the letter said. However, at the O’Bryant, the percentage of blacks is slightly above the district average.
Similarly, Latino students make up 42.1 percent of district enrollment, but only 12.5 percent of students at Latin School, 25.5 percent at Latin Academy, and 32.5 percent at the O’Bryant.
By contrast, white students account for 14.6 percent of the district’s enrollment, but represent 46.8 percent of students at Latin School, 29.1 percent at Latin Academy, and 10.7 percent at the O’Bryant, according to state data. Asian students also have outsized representation at the three exam schools.
Frustrated by school officials’ lackluster response to the disparities, the civil rights groups are stepping up their push after holding a series of public forums over the last two years to generate alternative approaches to exam-school admission.
Those approaches include inviting the top students from each ZIP code or public school to the exam schools, creating an admission exam that reflects what is taught in the school system, or developing a holistic admission system that would consider such factors as academic record, special skills like artistry or athleticism, and race. The letter notes the US Supreme Court in 2016 upheld the use of race if it’s among an array of factors rather than a quota system.
“Notably, BPS has been aware of all of these alternatives for many years, but has thus far refused to implement any of them,” the letter said.
The groups also feel emboldened after a Harvard University report last October found that the school system’s reliance on the Independent School Entrance Exam was unnecessarily denying many black and Latino students a chance at an exam-school education.
Part of the reason, the report explained, was that the exam doesn’t align with the BPS curriculum. While well-to-do parents can spend a lot of money on test-prep programs that give their children a distinct edge, families of more modest means cannot.
“Not only is BPS constitutionally permitted to take steps to diversify its exam schools, its failure to do so risks violating both federal and state anti-discrimination laws,” the letter said. That’s true, the letter noted, “even if there is no discriminatory intent.”
The most ambitious step school officials have taken so far to diversify exam-school enrollment begins this coming fall when sixth- and eighth-graders will be able to take the entrance exam at their school during the day instead of having to go to a regional site on the weekend. Exam schools typically enroll students in grades 7 and 9. Advocates, however, contend the move does not address the lopsided advantages of the well-to-do students who have benefited from the best private test-prep programs in the Boston area.
BPS has also expanded the number of seats in the Exam School Initiative prep course by 350, enabling more black and Latino students to take part.
BPS has increased the rate of black and Latino students being offered admission to the exam schools for grade 7, to 40 percent.
However, state data indicate that invitations don’t necessarily translate into higher enrollment of these students. For instance, the portion of black students at Latin School dropped from 8.5 percent in 2016 to 7.5 percent this year.
“Real systemic changes are needed because this problem has persisted for so long and the inequality runs so deep,” Sampson said.