Jada Pierre is tiny, her ambition drawn taut as a bowstring. The 16-year-old daughter of Haitian immigrants wears her hair in a small bun atop her head, her emerging political consciousness finding its voice in the bevy of Black Lives Matter and #MeToo stickers she’s pasted to her MacBook.
Jada skips breakfast in the morning, racing in her Patagonia jacket and striped pants from her home in Roxbury to catch the bus to school, where she regularly makes honor roll. She was recently named Student of the Month, and she’s spent several summers taking intensive math classes at the Russian School of Mathematics, just like so many of her friends.
“I want to constantly sharpen my skills,” says Jada, who may become the first in her family to graduate college. “There’s always room for improvement.”
Around the same time, another daughter of immigrants boards an MBTA bus bound for a school near Jada’s. Britney Mendez, dressed in her signature yellow hoodie, her fingernails painted an alternating pattern of yellow and blue, is weary from working late shifts at a pet supplies store. She’ll maybe catch a nap on the ride in from her family’s Dorchester home, often heading to Starbucks once she arrives at school.
Britney is a bright student, too. Middle school teachers once urged her to take the entrance test for the city’s elite exam schools, a step she says she wasn’t ready to take. Now as she approaches graduation, however, Britney’s become more academically erratic: Though she’s enrolled in several Advanced Placement courses, she also spent a summer making up a math class she’d failed.
She once dreamed of going to a four-year college. By senior year, however, she was prepared to settle for community college, at least for now.
“It is what it is,” she says one day before heading to work at the pet shop. “At least I didn’t drop out.”
Experts often say geography is destiny in the United States, that a student’s future success depends heavily on what neighborhood they grow up in. But in this case, it is Jada’s and Britney’s daily destinations, rather than their home addresses, that would seem to hold the most sway. Jada attends Newton South, a sterling suburban high school that routinely sends graduates to the country’s elite universities. Britney lands just 3 miles away at Brighton High, a floundering city school where fewer than 30 percent of graduates earn a college degree or other credential within six years of graduating.
Globe reporters spent weeks last spring at the two schools — both public — to try to understand how Newton South and Brighton High could produce such staggeringly different results. What were the obstacles to success? What were the suburban advantages? What could be done — and how much would it cost — to bridge the yawning gulf that divides them?
For while Britney and Jada are not so different when they step on the bus, everything changes once the school bell rings.
. . .
Perched on a hilltop, Brighton High looks like it belongs on a movie set: elegant arched windows, a sweeping staircase, paneled doors, and a row of cherry trees that frame expansive views of the neighborhood below.
It is also, by nearly every standard measure, a place that showcases the overwhelming struggles faced by Boston Public Schools.
In recent years, more than 40 percent of Brighton’s students did not graduate within four years. The school’s dropout rate outpaced the rest of the state by a factor of four. More than half the school’s students were chronically absent, and the average student missed nearly 30 days of class.
More broadly, enrollment has plunged by more than half over the past decade, and today Brighton serves as an educational backstop — a high school of last resort. Its struggling student body is in some ways the inevitable result of a stratified district that funnels high-achieving pupils to a handful of elite exam schools while relegating others to a range of lesser classrooms, where performance and expectations often fall short.
Here at the lower end of that spectrum, many students have significant unmet needs beyond campus, ranging from mental health concerns to immigration anxieties. Most are poor, and many arrive at Brighton after struggling at other schools. Some, like Britney, come after failing to get into their top choice in the district’s school assignment lottery. Some are sent there based on their academic needs. Others choose Brighton outright: It’s estimated that roughly a third of incoming freshmen selected the school as their top choice this fall.
“We have a very complex population,” said Brighton principal Robert Rametti. “We have some students who need more [academic] challenge, and then we have students who are dealing with homelessness.”
Britney was disappointed but resigned when she discovered she’d be going to Brighton rather than her first choice, Fenway High. She knew the school had a bad reputation but still held out hope that, “like, it may have improved or something. I didn’t really look into it.”
Brighton had not improved. The school had been staggering for years by the time Britney arrived as a freshman, occasionally gaining broader public attention through tragedy — a student charged with murder, a coach who allegedly received death threats from students, a fetus abandoned in a bathroom.
Brighton’s reputation suffered another blow in 2016, when the state officially branded it underperforming, requiring the district to develop a turnaround plan — twin factors that bring targeted funding along with the specter of state receivership if the school’s outcomes don’t improve.
“The ultimate question will be, can we make all of the gains they want,” said Rametti, a former Brighton teacher who returned in 2017 to lead the school’s turnaround effort. “That’s to be seen, but we’re making progress where we can.”
Still, statistics can only describe so much. In Brighton’s dimly lit corridors and overheated classrooms, a multitude of stories unfold daily, deeply human struggles too complex to be captured in the right-angled world of spreadsheet assessments.
Brighton, where nearly all the students are black or Latino, is essentially two schools: Roughly half its 600 students are still learning English. Many work full time. Some ventured to the United States alone, living in cramped quarters while helping to support their families. All are trying to bootstrap their way into English language proficiency — perhaps even a shot at college.
The other half of the student body are teenagers who’ve spent years in the Boston schools, many fighting their way back from academic failure, family catastrophe, or emotional crisis.
Binding it all together is a staff of young, idealistic teachers — many of them newly hired as part of the turnaround — who often work late, hoping to reach their students. It is a place where hope mingles with resignation, where aspirations fight for survival, where an emotionally distressed student may put her head down on a desk — and a sympathetic teacher may let her.
“There are kids who have significant mental health issues that don’t get identified,” said Brighton school psychologist Allen Cohen. “They don’t go to a hospital. They live with those symptoms: the depression and anxiety.”
This hilltop school also affords a clear view of the vast educational divide that separates many Boston students from their suburban peers — an educational inequity that is mirrored in urban and suburban districts across the country.
. . .
A short drive from the Brighton campus lies Newton South, a low-slung maze of orderly buildings, where students are offered a rich menu of academic and extracurricular opportunities on their path to the country’s elite colleges.
Here the dropout rate is 26 times lower than at Brighton. Nearly every member of the school’s affluent, mostly white student body graduates on time, and in 2018 fully 100 percent of 10th-graders scored proficient or higher on the English Language Arts MCAS, the state achievement test.
But Newton South, whose alumni include a Nobel Prize winner and several well-known actors, goes far beyond these baseline requirements. The school’s speech and debate team has earned two state championships in recent years. The theater program, which is supported by a dedicated parent group, mounted a host of productions last year, including a student directing festival.
A community-supported scholarship fund provides financial assistance for low-income students to join their classmates in a variety of international programs: cultural exchanges with China and France, a service trip to Puerto Rico, expeditions to the Galapagos Islands to study ecology or to Sweden and Iceland to study climate change. A new initiative will eventually supply every student with a Chromebook. The school boasts more than 100 clubs — groups for would-be doctors and strategic financial investors, aspiring roboticists, attorneys, even cheese enthusiasts.
More than a quarter of Newton South students sit for final AP exams in a given year, and the overwhelming majority earn a qualifying score of 3 or higher. Meanwhile, students here outscore their statewide peers on the SAT by an average of 165 points — a gap that grows to roughly 430 points when compared directly to Brighton.
These two schools, so close as the crow flies, seem to inhabit entirely separate educational realms. At one, students select new and gently used clothes that have been donated to an onsite “store.” At the other, students park in a lot that offers a charging station for electric vehicles.
Almost nothing about these two schools could be described as equivalent. And yet, if education, proverbially, is America’s great equalizer, schools like Brighton are often called upon to perform double duty: serving as a triage station for students who’ve fallen through the social safety net, while also striving to prepare those students to compete with the Newton South graduates of the world.
Asked to do so much, such schools too often fail at even their most basic duty.
But while popular wisdom — and the current debate on Beacon Hill — hopes the right school funding plan can push schools like Brighton and Newton South toward parity, a closer look reveals gaps that even the most robust funding formula would struggle to fill.
Boston already outpaces Newton by nearly $3,000 a year when it comes to per-student spending. Similarly, BPS teachers are some of the highest paid in the state, outearning their Newton peers by about $18,000 on average. Now, as lawmakers work to overhaul the state’s educational funding system — with some urging an estimated $2.4 billion increase to help cover the higher costs of educating disadvantaged students — it’s easy to hope that more money will bridge the divide.
Perhaps it will. But the gulf between these two schools, and their student bodies, may be too deep for school funding alone to erase. That’s because the gap is not only about what happens in the classroom — it’s also a reflection of much deeper inequalities in the larger society.
That hard truth may be obscured on Beacon Hill. But viewed through Brighton’s sooty windows, it is all too clear.
. . .
It’s 9:30 a.m. on a Friday morning and the volume is rising in Room 304 at Brighton High School. The young teacher in this ESL 2 class, Ramon Trinidad, is eager to dive back into the book his students just started reading, a short novel about a girl growing up in the Dominican Republic. But the students before him are hellbent on diversion, peppering their tall, good-natured teacher with examples of personification — a concept they’ve just learned, and delight in practicing.
“The clouds are crying!” someone calls out. “The sun is smiling!” another chimes in. They reach for more poetic examples, striving to impress Trinidad.
“But why is that personification?” the teacher demands of one struggling senior, a native Spanish speaker who came alone to the United States from Guatemala.
The young man looks pained. He searches haltingly for the words in English as his teacher waits, coaxes, praises his fumbling attempt. Finally, Trinidad tosses him a piece of candy from the jar of Jolly Ranchers on his desk — his trademark reward for extra effort.
“OK,” he says decisively, ending the digression. “We have a million things to do today.”
The students before him have made their way to Boston from across the world. They have been here a year or so, on average, coming from Panama, Haiti, China, El Salvador, Honduras, Yemen, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, Guatemala, Bangladesh. Most have known hardship; many know it still. In this classroom, they struggle, but they feel understood. Here they share one language and one common goal: to speak English well enough to thrive in their new country.
It is as ambitious an undertaking as any suburban AP class, with stakes much higher than an Ivy League acceptance letter. And it is a mission that defines this urban high school, where the percentage of students learning English is among the highest in the state.
In Trinidad’s classroom, the students are a study in grit and raw potential. All can speak English — some with difficulty, others with stunning proficiency. Against the odds, a few have already passed the MCAS. In this well-worn space that feels like home to them, they function like a large, noisy family, rife with affectionate rivalries, tolerant of one another’s quirks.
Among them are obvious stars. Chrystellie Melay is bold and outspoken, an aspiring architect from Haiti who passes out books to her classmates without being asked; Khadiza Akter, from Bangladesh, frets over every quiz and wants to be a doctor. But in the back of the room, a girl from Guatemala is in obvious distress. She slumps onto the desk with her hands over her face, a broken posture Trinidad has come to expect. He doesn’t know exactly what the problem is — other teachers say she may have suffered a death in the family, might have to leave the country, or both — and he struggles daily to decide whether it is best to leave her be, or intervene.
“Are you OK?” he asks the girl, calling her by name.
She is not the only one battling invisible demons. Some here are undocumented immigrants, living in fear of deportation. Many pine for parents left behind. Some survived wars or natural disasters. One day, a Yemeni student received a text and started crying at her desk: A beloved teacher had been killed in her home country.
And for many, school is secondary to economic survival. When the last bell rings, they go to work, clocking long hours to help pay their families’ rent, getting by on four or five stolen hours of sleep.
Juan Terrero is one of those straddling two worlds. The 18-year-old senior, tall and thin in a black Nike sweat shirt, sits in the back corner of the classroom nursing a bright pink Dunkin’ Coolatta. Many days, he leaves school at 2:30 p.m. and crosses the city to Kenmore Square, where he works an eight- or nine-hour shift at a busy Chipotle restaurant near Fenway Park. He clocks out after midnight, hoists his backpack again, and walks home in a fog of exhaustion to his grandmother’s crowded apartment on Huntington Avenue, across deserted parkland and a string of handsome private college campuses.
As the iron radiators in the ESL classroom crank away each morning, Juan longs to close his eyes, if only for a moment. But he knows that if he drops his head, Trinidad will ask him to sit up. Everyone is tired, his teacher will remind him. So Juan sighs and fights to stay upright.
He knows — all the students in this class know — that their teacher understands them, even when he asks a lot; for Trinidad, too, arrived in the United States as a kid from the Dominican Republic, understanding nothing, feeling frustrated, until the day that English started to make sense.
. . .
Three miles away at Newton South, David Weintraub’s classroom in some ways resembles those at Brighton: In both places, a broken wall clock is frozen at the wrong hour. A plastic shoe organizer hangs by each classroom door; its numbered pockets, meant to holster students’ cellphones, unused.
But there is no denying that what happens in this sophomore English class is different. It isn’t honors level, or AP, but an ambitious new mixed-levels program known as New Media Communities, which pairs literature and history with an emphasis on media production.
On this late spring day, as the class wraps up a unit on depictions of Africa in literature and film, Weintraub hands the students a challenging in-class assignment: research, write, and produce a one-minute documentary during the 55-minute period.
As the small groups begin furiously Googling, Jada Pierre, still wearing her Patagonia jacket, bullet-points her findings, drafting a script with her partner before turning to the bibliography, where she carefully credits each source.
“It’s a given,” says Jada, peering up from her screen. “You don’t want to steal.”
Weintraub’s classroom hums with self-directed learning. Students trumpet their ideas, and flow easily into the hallway as they seek a quiet spot to record their voice-overs. Many hardly notice when the class ends, and continue working well into lunch.
The class has been transformative for Jada, who attends Newton South courtesy of Metco, a program that enables minority students from Boston to attend nearby suburban schools.
“Jada’s a superstar,” says Weintraub, who looks like a college professor with his tweed blazer, argyle vest, beard, and skinny jeans. “She feels a total sense of ‘the world is my oyster.’”
And so it is. As a Newton student, Jada has sidestepped many of the obstacles that bedevil her BPS counterparts, while capitalizing on the opportunities offered by the suburban district. Beyond her honor roll performance, Jada also participates in a host of extracurriculars: the school’s Anti-Defamation League Peer Leadership Program, a service trip to Puerto Rico, independent summer French lessons.
Each of these opportunities is a source of pride for her mother, Beatrice Jacot, who signed her daughter up for Metco when Jada was just three days old.
“I came from the hospital, dropped her home, and went straight to the Metco office,” said Jacot, who graduated from the old Hyde Park High School. “I felt like I was learning more when I was back home [in Haiti] than I was learning here. I didn’t want her to experience the same thing.”
Jacot, who holds down two jobs in health care, said that long-ago decision has greatly benefited her daughter, who often arrives home bursting with new ideas and excited by fresh opportunities.
“She goes out of her way to find stuff,” said Jacot, who has continued her own education with part-time courses at a community college. “She always said to me: Mommy, I want to be on the same level or higher than my peers.”
In Newton, Jada’s been surrounded by affluent students who’ve had their confidence and curiosity honed by years of private tutoring, family travel, enrichment classes, and bedtime reading sessions. These are students who rarely have to worry about fundamentals like graduating on time or passing the state assessment exams, regarding them as a distraction from their more ambitious academic pursuits.
“It is a huge inconvenience,” chemistry teacher Alan Crosby said after school one day as Jada wandered into his classroom. “It interrupts the schedule and gets in the way of instruction, as opposed to helping us direct our instruction.”
“It’s a waste,” Jada nodded in agreement. “That’s why I don’t feel the need to study for MCAS.”
While Jada clearly possesses a native curiosity and ambition, the power of Newton South to expand students’ worldview is hard to deny. Earlier that morning, Weintraub had started class with a little three-minute party, as he does each Friday, playing upbeat music and inviting students to stand up, mingle, and discuss their weekend plans. The burst of socializing revealed varied and far-flung itineraries: a graduation in Ohio, a drive to Cape Cod, a trip to New York City.
Be sure to visit the new Whitney Museum, Weintraub suggested to the Manhattan-bound student once they’d retaken their seats. The nearby High Line is worth checking out, too.
These non-academic exercises are a way for Newton students to decompress and focus on the positive — a priority since a cluster of student suicides during the 2013-14 academic year called attention to the school’s high-stakes atmosphere. Teachers say parents have dialed down the pressure in recent years, but the demands students place on themselves are another story.
“A lot of it . . . happens on social media,” said history teacher Jamie Rinaldi. “It’s 2 in the morning and you’re snapchatting about finishing your history paper.”
Weintraub said students view the late night study sessions as a “badge of honor.”
Unlike some of her peers, Jada does not yet know where she wants to go to college. What she does know is what it takes to be competitive: As school was winding down last spring, she contemplated a summer SAT prep course so she can “like, skyrocket through it.”
“It’s a little pricey, but I don’t worry about the cost if she’s actually learning,” said Jacot. “I’m satisfied with the results.”
Jada, on the other hand, continues to look for ways to improve. Though she insists she’s “chill,” she often stays late for help with math and chemistry, where she received a pair of A minuses. She also ended up attending the SAT course.
“It’s frustrating,” she said, adding that her mother sometimes goes too easy on her. “I know I can do better. I need that pep talk, because I know nobody at home is going to give it to me. So I need to give it to myself.”
. . .
With their sweat shirts pulled tight against the drizzling spring rain, Britney Mendez and Emily Alvarado tramp through Brighton’s patchwork of old homes and new developments. Britney’s just ended a Sunday shift at Petco, where she’s been logging as many hours as she can since her father lost his job in construction.
“It’s been hard because rent’s coming up,” she said. “It’s not like Petco pays me an amazing amount.”
With just a month before graduation, Britney inhabits a confusing terrain where teenage concerns collide with adult responsibilities. She still needs to buy a prom dress. She has to get through finals, and she’s looking forward to a bit more free time. But she’s also chronically exhausted. She worries about money, and about what lies ahead.
But for now, at least, Britney’s stolen a few hours to spend with Emily, her once-inseparable best friend who these days she sees mainly at school. The pair met during freshman year, when they bonded over their shared history: As the daughters of El Salvadoran immigrants, they were born within days of one another at the same hospital.
Back then, Britney thought she might become a writer. Emily dreamed of going to medical school. The parents of neither had gone to college, but that hardly seemed to matter. Both had excelled in middle school, quietly doing their work while giving other students a wide berth.
Neither girl took the exam school entrance test. “I did the high school process a lot by myself,” said Britney, who’d worried she wouldn’t do well on the test. Emily, meanwhile, was warned against Brighton by her teachers, but decided to go anyway because her parents wanted her close to home.
“They’d judge me for [choosing Brighton] all the time,” said Emily, who still shares a bedroom with her parents in the family’s Brighton apartment. “My dream was to go to Harvard.”
That dream seemed remote last spring as Britney and Emily filed into a class on entrepreneurship. The substitute teacher, who had scrawled the day’s assignment on a board, seemed disconnected, hardly looking up from her desk as one student played music from his phone’s speaker. A group of girls began to sing. Meanwhile, other students bobbed their heads silently, while a few others appeared to work on the assignment.
Emily was soon lost in her phone as well, playing a Tetris-like game as Britney rested her head on the desk, exhausted from another long shift at the pet store.
“Days just feel like lucid dreams at this point,” Britney, who often arrives home at 10 p.m. with homework yet to do, had said earlier. “I could be falling asleep at 2 a.m. and wake up at 4:30, and it’s like: Well, that was fun. Take a nap on the bus.”
The long days are taking their toll in other ways as well: Britney sometimes dreams that she is standing at the cash register, and last spring she fell asleep in school after taking an AP exam.
“I mean, like, I finished,” she said. “My brain just like erases everything once I see the paper.”
There are some indisputable bright spots: The friends placed first in a design competition for their AP art class, a project where students imagined a portion of a building.
Even so, it would be hard to argue that their Brighton years have been what they’d hoped for, particularly after the school was thrust into its turnaround upheaval. Not only was their school day extended 30 minutes, but students also had new required classes such as entrepreneurship and visual arts. Beloved teachers disappeared. Strangers began dropping in on classes to observe.
“We were so mad,” said Emily, singling out the new class requirements. “I find that so unfair.”
Meanwhile, their home lives were also in turmoil. Britney’s family moved to a new apartment after long-running familial tensions reached a breaking point, and her grandmother was diagnosed with cancer. Emily’s mother had health issues of her own. Her step-brother died suddenly in El Salvador, while financial woes and other concerns continued to mount.
“The house was, like, all grieving,” said Emily, who began missing school. “My mind’s on that and not school.”
The friends felt they were one another’s only support. They only had a few classes together, and it felt more manageable to stay away from Brighton, where teachers pressured them and prying counselors seemed to want to know everything.
“I don’t want a social worker raining down on my house,” said Britney. “I know where I’m living. I know what I’m doing. I’ve been doing it for years. It’s been my whole life.”
Emily said she tried to go back to school at one point, but found she had fallen too far behind to catch up that year.
All told, Britney and Emily missed more than 40 days of school that year — an academic disaster they continue to pay for: While Britney failed one class, Emily failed three, though neither was held back as a result.
“I just gave up basically,” said Emily, who, like Britney, later made up the classes. “I basically gave myself even lower standards.”
Although both Britney and Emily say their performance improved some senior year, Emily’s dream of medical school now seems out of reach.
“How am I supposed to get into Harvard,” she asked, adding that her cousin studied accounting. “So then I just thought, I might as well do that.”
Halfway through the entrepreneurship class, Britney tossed their empty Starbucks cups in the trash before they were called down to a college fair in the school gym — a collection of representatives from area schools at tables arranged in a horseshoe around the basketball court.
The girls brushed past a woman at the door who offered them questions to ask the college reps. Speaking to no one, Britney and Emily made their way to the bleachers at the edge of the gym, whispering on the sidelines as they waited for the fair to end.
It wasn’t that they weren’t interested. Britney said she’d been accepted by several of the schools, but none had offered her enough financial aid. And anyway, she’d already made her choice: She will join Emily at Massachusetts Bay Community College this fall, hoping eventually to transfer to a four-year school.
Emily, meanwhile, will likely end her education with an associate’s degree, even if she sometimes wonders about going further.
“I kind of wish I had that,” she said, referring to students who were heading to four-year schools with the help of financial aid. “But things didn’t turn out that way.”
. . .
After thundering down two flights of stairs and into the gym, the students from ESL 2 reacted the same way when they reached the college fair, hanging back from the tables piled with glossy brochures. But their teacher, Trinidad, was having none of it. He sized up their discomfort instantly and snapped into action, like a coach in the final seconds of a playoff game.
In the center of the floor, beneath the twin basketball hoops, he gathered his students together in a huddle — the senior Juan Terrero, weary from his late-night shift at Chipotle; the troubled girl from Guatemala; two worried seniors who still had not passed the MCAS — and delivered a loud, rousing pep talk in Spanish. This is an opportunity, the teacher told them urgently. This is your chance. Go, talk to them, ask questions!
Tentatively, Juan made his way toward the table for Bunker Hill Community College, where he had already been accepted, and asked a question about financial aid. As the answer wound down, Trinidad appeared, reached an arm around Juan’s shoulders and walked him over to the Bridgewater State table.
“If you go to buy shoes, do you buy the first pair you see?” his teacher asked.
Across the gym, star student Chrystellie Melay still hesitated to approach the college reps. “I need to think of what to say to them,” the spunky sophomore from Haiti fretted, her expression uncharacteristically anxious.
Most of the kids in ESL 2 talk about going to college but have little idea how to get there. Most of their families could offer minimal help. Guidance would come from the school, if it came at all.
Trinidad did everything he could, building them up and encouraging their dreams, but he wondered what success would look like. If his students didn’t apply to college, had he failed them? What if they went, but struggled and dropped out? The state assessed his English language learners the same as all the other students in the state, whether they had mastered their new language or not. Maybe that was right and fair — but sometimes, it felt wrong.
Now Juan was talking with a Brighton guidance counselor who offered him a fairy-tale vision of his future. “I’ve known people who’ve gone on to MIT from Bunker Hill,” she told him.
“What is MIT?” he asked politely.
. . .
Daniel Glickman and his Newton South classmates know what MIT is. They know Harvard, too, and Yale. Many set their sights on the Ivy League as freshmen.
A sophomore interested in music and film, Daniel is bright, engaged and motivated, sometimes whimsical, with a broad and boundless sense of what his future might hold. The 16-year-old plays varsity lacrosse and runs track, like his father and grandfather before him. He plays guitar for fun, and makes videos with a comic flair. But he is serious when he describes a personal crossroads: observing a school culture he does not fully embrace, trying to decide what kind of student, and person, to be.
“There’s so much pressure here to know what you want to do, to pick out your dream school, and to do everything to get there,” he said one day last spring. “There’s a culture of excellence, and the idea that we’re ‘the best of the best.’ . . . So many people around me want to be doctors and lawyers.”
On paper, Daniel seems an unlikely candidate for an untraditional path. His parents, both doctors, chose to raise their family in Newton in part because of its excellent schools. His older sister, two years ahead of him at Newton South, plans to follow her parents into medicine. But while his mother and father attended Harvard and Yale, Daniel says they have instilled a reassuring message in their children: It doesn’t matter where you go to college.
One evening last spring, as a sudden downpour subsided outside and his father whipped up dinner from a mail-order Blue Apron kit, Daniel arrived home from lacrosse practice and settled in at the dining room table with his homework. He leaned over his notebook, penning sentences in the subjunctive mood in Spanish, as the sound of vegetables sizzling in the next room mixed with occasional barks from the family dog, Milo. If some of his peers routinely sacrifice sleep to study, Daniel is not among them: He completes his homework each night before dinner.
Daniel wasn’t always a self-starter, but he says he had a revelation freshman year: His parents wouldn’t always be there to motivate him. “A lot of people build up this idea that the work is so difficult,” he says. “To me, it’s just sitting there and doing it.”
As the sun came out and he finished his assignments — looking forward to a free hour he would while away on YouTube — Daniel gave no thought to the MCAS exam he would take in school the next morning. While some Brighton students spent weeks preparing for it, the test was an afterthought to Daniel and his peers.
Most have already set their sights beyond it, on the ivy-covered campuses they will conquer next.
. . .
Around her, graduates in black caps whooped and yelled, but Britney Mendez stood serene amid the uproar, waiting patiently in line with her hands clasped before her. Another minute, and the Brighton senior would walk across the stage to collect her diploma — the last steps in her journey through the Boston Public Schools.
The speeches — all brief — were finished now. The valedictorian, a recent immigrant from Vietnam, had urged her classmates to persevere through challenges, as she had two years before when she was learning English. “Remember,” said Thanh Vy Dac, who is attending UMass Boston this fall, “you can try, you can fail, and you can try again.”
The ceremony’s keynote speaker, Shawn Brown, described overcoming his own high school struggles, leaving behind gang life to start a successful youth mentoring program. “Raise your hand if you ever wanted to give up,” he instructed the graduates. Britney, with dozens of her classmates, raised her hand.
“Raise your hand if anyone ever told you you wouldn’t amount to nothing.” Again Britney’s hand reached up, in a sea of others.
“Now imagine if you’d listened to them,” said Brown. “You wouldn’t be here today. . . . Your past does not define your future.”
In Newton, where sophomore Daniel Glickman had attended his older sister’s graduation one week earlier, students and parents heard a very different message. There was no talk there of low expectations. Rather, student speaker Nayleth Lopez-Lopez spoke about the burden of privilege and high expectations, stressing the duty of the Newton graduates to use their vast advantages to make a difference.
“With all that we have been given — all the privilege, platforms, and power — what will we expect of ourselves?” she asked her classmates.
Students at both schools showed the same exhilaration. On the Brighton stage, graduates danced and ran and swaggered. Some turned to face the crowd halfway across, thrusting their hard-won diplomas high into the air. Their classmates screamed for each triumphant pose, waves of joyful noise rippling through the hall.
Afterward, in the mild June twilight, Britney held her diploma to her chest, cradling a bouquet of roses in her other arm. She had finished high school, but it didn’t feel real yet.
The sky grew dark, and still the graduates lingered on the sidewalk. A gusty wind whipped their robes and tugged at their balloons. Ahead of them, they knew, lay an uncertain future, but this moment felt sweet and rare, like something to hang onto. They paused and wondered how far it might carry them. They hoped that they were ready for whatever would come next.