How Boston Latin speaks to America’s diversity troubles

Headmaster Lynne Mooney Teta spoke during the graduation ceremony for Boston Latin's class of 2016.
Headmaster Lynne Mooney Teta spoke during the graduation ceremony for Boston Latin's class of 2016.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

The resignation of Lynne Mooney Teta, the headmaster of Boston Latin School, over her handling of allegations of racially charged incidents at the school and on social media, is another painful reminder of what ails America — the failure of public and private institutions to reflect the diversity of the United States. It should not be surprising that a failure to incorporate the diverse populations of America in a public school setting leads to anger boiling up and boiling over.

The school came under fire in January after a YouTube video posted by students pointed to racial discrimination. Teta, herself a graduate of Boston Latin, has been there nine years but has been under pressure to leave because of how she handled racial incidents at the school, which led to an independent investigation by the US Attorney’s office in Massachusetts in February.


It is important to understand how tensions simmer in our institutions. Tuition is free at Boston Latin — with a catch. To gain admission, you need to pass a competitive exam to get one of the highly coveted seats in this magnet school. Like the SAT, students often take preparatory courses to score high on the test, and gain access to the school. And like the SAT, low-income kids often don’t find their way into these preparatory classes and lose out to high-scoring students, often from parochial or private schools and from higher income families. (In late April, the Boston Public Schools announced the expansion of a free, test prep program.) Many black and Latino students don’t get into the pipeline.

Another vexing issue in the case of Boston Latin is affirmative action. Up until 1998, this historical school, founded centuries ago, used racial quotas to free up places for minority students. But a 1998 court ruling found the quotas unconstitutional. Not surprisingly, over time, the highly coveted spots got taken up by those with access and privilege. To be fair, Boston Latin tried hard to get around the use of affirmative action quotas by going directly to public schools and recruiting lower income applicants. But despite years of hard work recruiting black and Latino students, the admissions officers at Boston Latin were unable to sustain a record of diversity.


In the end, Boston Latin School, like many of its peers, does not look like America in 2016. According to a report in The Boston Globe, the number of white students enrolled at Boston Latin today is almost exactly the same as it was 20 years ago — 1, 156, down from 1,198 even though the number of white applicants during that time fell 40 percent. Black enrollment fell 60 percent. Latino numbers remained constant over the past 2 two decades although the number of Latino applicants surged by 88 percent. And Asian students began to take up many of the classroom spaces once held by black students and today make up 29 percent of the student body.

Boston Latin is not alone is failing to mirror society at large. At a time when we should be celebrating differences and diversity, we, as a nation, are becoming divided in our educational systems and institutions. New data from the General Accounting Office finds that black and Hispanic children are becoming increasingly isolated from their white, affluent peers in our nation’s public schools. These are worrisome trends. The number of high-poverty schools serving principally black and brown students more than doubled between 2001 and 2014. Only 18 percent of public school teachers are minorities. Income disparities are boxing out the middle class and creating what looks more and more in America like segregated schools.


When schools and places of work fail to be diverse, isolation happens in the lower represented groups and anger boils up and spills over. It is a pattern we have seen time and again across the nation. The mismatch of diverse groups and the lack of diverse leadership in public schools, private schools, colleges, universities, police departments, and on corporate boards is an American nightmare happening in real-time. It has both ethical implications and socio-economic and political dimensions. It is both morally unacceptable to have white-majorities box out low-income and diverse populations and it makes little economic sense since it leaves a vastly untapped population of people without an outlet for their talents.

Boston Latin is the tip of an iceberg. We have demographic challenges, institutional racism, economic disparity, and a persistent gender gap. In short, we have America struggling to look like America.

Tara D. Sonenshine, former under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, is a lecturer at George Washington University.