The Boston School Committee today unanimously approved a new policy for admissions to the city's three exam schools that relies less on a test and more on grades - and on socioeconomic data that will benefit students in public housing, are homeless or attend schools with a high number of poor families.
School Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said that the new policy will maintain academic rigor at the three schools while opening opportunity to poor Black and Brown students. She said students will have to have at least a B average to be considered for Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy and the John D. O'Bryant School. She added that students will also get to take the new exam twice, with the higher score used - and that the exam will be "aligned" with Massachusetts curricula standards, unlike the previous ISEE test, which included topics Boston students were not necessarily taught.
The vote was a rejection of an alternate plan that would have assigned 20% of the seats to the top scoring and test-taking students. Some officials at City Hall threatened to withhold approval of the BPS budget if that plan were not adopted.
Cassellius told the School Committee - down to just five members due to resignations by three members over racist comments related to the exam schools - the new plan is a key step on the way to making BPS an "anti-racist school district" in which all students have equal opportunity to advance.
Under the plan approved tonight, students will first be ranked according to their grades, which will count towards 70% of their exam-school ranking, and a new entrance exam, in English and math, which will count for 30% - at least starting with the 2023-24 school year. For 2022-2023, BPS would use just grades, as it did for the coming school year.
Students who live in public housing, are homeless or who are in DCF care or who attend a school where at least 40% of their families are "economically disadvantaged" will then get more points added to their scores - either 15 for students in public housing or who are homeless or in the care of DCF or 10 points for students at schools with high poverty levels. Students will get the higher adjustment that applies to them, but not both.
Once BPS has a list of students ranked by all those criteria, students will be filtered according to which of eight neighborhood economic "tiers," based on a series of socio-economic criteria, including family income, private homes, single-parent families, educational attainment and households in which a language other than English is used. BPS will then offer admission from the lowest to the highest tier, with each tier getting an equal number of slots - a system BPS adopted from the system that Chicago uses for admission to its exam schools. The system will repeat until all the possible seats are filled.
Along with this, BPS will provide extensive outreach to let kids and their parents know they can apply to the exam schools, followed by test prep classes, officials said.
"It's a huge step forward for our students, especially for our students who have not been able to access our exam schools through no fault of their own," Cassellius said.
"We have come to a place where we are ready to move this district forward," Committee Chairwoman Jeri Robinson said. She added it was just a first step, though. "We have 30 high schools, there's no reason that we only have three that people feel that they want to be able to go to."
"This is an important moment for the city," committee member Michael O'Neill said. "It moves us forward in a positive way."
Tanisha Sullivan, who co-chaired the task force that developed the new policy - along with former Superintendent and Boston Latin School Headmaster Michael Contompasis, agreed the new policy is really only a first step. Now, she said, BPS needs to pay particular attention to bolstering K-5 education.
In 3 1/2 hours of public testimony, parents, educators and residents on both sides of the issue gave impassioned pleas on how the committee should vote.
Supporters said the vote, by helping poorer Black and Brown students at least get a chance at the exam schools is the first step in undoing decades of discrimination against them.
Several white parents from Jamaica Plain, Roslindale and West Roxbury said their kids are already growing up with advantages and that they want schools where all kids can attend.
"i want my children to be participants in a public education system that is fair, that prioritizes equity," Sharon Kunz of Roslindale, who has two young children in BPS, said.
Jadon Berkson, who lives in the South End and goes to BLS, praised the proposal. "This is the Boston I want to live in and grow in," he said.
Also supporting it: Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union, who criticized people who said Black and Hispanic students would lower the standards at the exam schools, and that not all Asian-American families can afford the sort of test-prep programs that promise better entrance-exam scores.
Opponents said the School Committee, after five months of hearings, was rushing to vote on a plan that most people hadn't seen, and warned they are destroying not just the exam schools, but the very city of Boston. Some said BPS should leave the exam schools alone and use the $400 million it's getting from the federal government to fix the city's other schools.
Nancy Minucci said the plan means that kids who know go to the Dante Alighieri, Eliot, Manning, Kilmer and Lyndon schools, as well as students in Metco and at private and parochial schools, now have "zero chance" of getting into an exam school.
"You're opening yourself to huge lawsuits," she said.
Darragh Murphy of Dorchester, who is part of the parents group that sued to block the admissions system BPS used for the upcoming school year, blasted the committee for the "crude and cruel way" three members referred to White and Asian-American students - without noting that the three have since resigned. She charged the only reason the committee was voting tonight was to ensure a policy is in place before a new mayor and several new city councilors are elected in November.
City Councilors Julia Mejia (at large) and Ricardo Arroyo (Hyde Park, Roslindale, Mattapan), though, supported the proposal.
"It's the first step to dismantle an oppressive structure, inequities that continue to exist decade after decades here in Boston public schools," Mejia said. Arroyo said he was particularly glad to see the ISEE test dispatched, calling it a fundamentally racist test.
State Rep. Russell Holmes, who represents Mattapan and part of Roslindale, said he was angered by supporters of the 20/80 plan, who claimed anything else would discriminate against kids who had worked hard to get into an exam school. "All those kids who are not part of that 20% are working hard as well," but unlike the students in the 20%, also have to deal with issues like housing, just getting enough to eat and gun violence, he said. "So many of us achieve in spite of, not because of. "
But Jenny Xie of Brighton, said she wants a return to a system that only looks at students' grades and exam scores. She wondered why her kids shouldn't get extra points, too, because they are hard workers - and have to overcome the disadvantage of growing up speaking a language other than English. The new system "is very unfair to bilingual students," she said.
Steve Yang, who opposed the plan, said exam schools are just not for everybody and that the exams represent meritocracy in action. "The middle class will be driven out of Boston," he predicted.
Jess Madden-Fuoco of Hyde Park, who has a child at the Hernandez School and who teaches at English High School, objected to "the privileged and the powerful" trying to hold onto what they have.
"English students are as brilliant" as exam-school students, she said. "It's despicable to insinuate they're not as worthy of a seat at an exam school."
Priscilla Rojas of Mattapan, who chairs the BPDA board, acknowledged what she said was the heart-wrenching decision the committee had to make, but urged them to vote for the new policy.
Marie Mercurio of Jamaica Plain blasted the "ideologues with agendas," she said composed the task force and said she opposes the plan as unfair, even though it might personally benefit her because her son goes to a "high-poverty" school.
Peter Piazza, who described himself as a "white parent of two while children," said the vote is only a first step in paying off the "historical debt" Boston owes its poor minority families, one he said accrued over the decades through redlining and 1974 right through this year's back-door maneuvering at City Hall to get the committee to vote differently.
Judith Nee said it was absurd to think people in West Roxbury, Roslindale or Hyde Park are rich. The real rich people are in Manchester by the Sea, Cohasset and Marblehead and "they are laughing at us for eating our young." She blasted the plan for dissing the children of firefighters and police officers, and said the committee should be ashamed of itself for even bringing race into the exam-school discussion. "It's never been about white black or brown. It's about gray matter."
Heshan Berents-Weeramnuni, however, noted that Boston Latin School didn't have exams for most of its centuries-long existence and that they only started in 1963, when racist Louise Day Hicks chaired the School Committee.
Slide presentation on the proposal.