Examining Boston’s Exam Schools: Admissions, Race, Equity, and the Future of Boston’s Public Schools

Author: Jill Shah
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“We’ve got to build a community, collaborative kind of effort and deal with some real troubled issues.”

~Michael Contompasis, Longtime BPS Leader and Educator

On November 7th, 2019, thousands of sixth and eighth graders in Boston Public Schools will head to school and sit for the three hour ISEE (Independent School Entrance Exam) test that will help determine their chances of attending one of Boston’s three public exam schools, prided as some of the best schools in the city as well as in the state. Traditionally given on a Saturday morning, the change to administering the admissions test during a weekday at school reflects the push for changing the admissions policies for the exam schools: O’Bryant School of Math and Science, Boston Latin Academy, and Boston Latin School.

Over the past few years, many have been pushing the district to make changes to the admissions policies for these schools due to a lack of diversity and enrollment of Black and Latinx students, especially at Boston Latin School. While the broad population in Boston Public Schools is over 75% Black or Latinx and less than 25% White or Asian, Boston Latin School 2500-person student body is over 75% White and Asian, and less than 25% Black and Latinx.

These percentages have caused criticism of the current admissions system, in which many have said the policies put Black and Latinx students at a disadvantage that prevents them from being able to attend Boston’s exam schools. Most recently, the NAACP and Lawyers for Civil Rights have pressured the district to make changes towards a fair admissions process for all students that would also increase diversity at these high schools, and especially at Boston Latin School.

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Alternatively, there is a different point of view that stipulates that the make-up of Boston Latin School is a symptom of a much larger problem, which is that BPS has dozens of schools falling in performance at the bottom 10% of the state’s achievement scale, lessening greatly the number of applicants who are prepared to take the ISEE test successfully. These school’s student bodies are, in most cases, comprised of largely black and latinx students.

Today’s podcast features a conversation with Michael Contompasis, former headmaster of Boston Latin School and former Superintendent of Boston Public Schools. Michael is now overseeing a turn-around of the Devers school in Dorcester which was taken over by the State of Massachusetts several years ago and put into receivership under Michael’s supervision. Michael talks with us today about his experience running a low-performing elementary school, and the efforts underway to transform it into a successful and high-performing school, while dealing with significant challenges and a student body that suffers significantly from trauma, homelessness and other issues of poverty.

Additionally, we talk with Contompasis about the decades he has spent in the city thinking about admissions to the exam schools. He talks with us about how he feels race and income play into outcomes and readiness for academic success, and opines on what will need to happen in the future for all schools in BPS to provide equal experiences to all students across the district.