The Dispute Over Who Gets to Attend Our Nation’s Top Schools

When Boston schools superintendent Tommy Chang reconvened the district’s committee meeting last month, he knew it would be unlike any other. But the attention was on two young, African American women, students who attend one of Boston’s premier high schools. They stood face-to-face with some of the biggest powerbrokers of their city’s school system to explain that the work being done to ensure a racially-harmonious educational environment is not enough.

Days before, Meggie Noel, 17, and Kylie Webster-Cazeau, 18 — both members of a student group called BLS B.L.A.C.K. (Black Leaders Aspiring for Change and Knowledge) released a YouTube video that highlighted what they say is a climate of racial insensitivity at Boston Latin School (BLS), one of the city’s top magnet high schools and also America’s oldest public school. In the video, the two launched their #BlackatBLS campaign that decried an openly racist school culture. They specifically pointed to a 2014 incident where administrators failed to listen to complaints of racism after students got into a public Twitter battle following the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

“It just felt like what we go through every day was completely disregarded,” Noel told “What is the oldest public school in the nation going to do, moving forward, to address these issues?”

The answer to her question is one that BLS and the Boston School Department are trying to respond to now.  An investigation found  that school administrators did not “adequately investigate” racial incidents that were brought to their attention, according to a report released last week. Coupled with news that enrollment of potential Black students at BLS has been declining for a while— down 60 percent when compared to 20 years ago—and the city’s struggles with recruiting a diverse teaching staff, the question really becomes whether the a top high school in a city that prides itself on its liberalism is also a barometer for how Boston officials handle diversity overall.

“Black folks in Boston have always had to fight to get quality education, which is sad because Boston is considered the birthplace of public education,” said Kim Janey, senior project director at Massachusetts Advocates for Children.


The student body at Boston Public Schools is one of the most racially and ethnically diverse in the nation where 87 percent are students of color, according to official numbers. And yet, the problems there are not unique. Education specialists and lawmakers across the country have grappled with the excellence gap, especially in balancing the socioeconomic and racial makeup of the best public high schools. While the percentage of White and higher-income students scoring at the highest levels on the National Assessment of Educational Progress is increasing, underrepresented minorities and low-income students have not made the same gains, with research showing that bright, low-income students actually losing ground as they progress through school without the right support. This is why magnet high schools are held at a higher standard. They not only attract the best students in their region, but they are guaranteed feeder schools to top tier universities.

Throughout the country, there are examples of magnet high schools that struggle with diversifying their student ranks. New York City’s high schools are notorious for their lack of diversity. In 2014, only five percent of seats at the eight magnet schools were offered to Black students and seven percent to Latinos in a melting pot city where 70 percent of all public school students are either Black or Latino. At Stuyvesant High School, arguably the best in the city, just three percent of available seats in 2014 went to Black and Latino students.

New York City’s use of a test-only admission process for specialty high schools is said to be part of the problem since this gives White, Asian and male students a significant advantage, says New York University Professor Sean Corcoran who worked on a recent study that measured whether replacing the admission test would add more diversity (the study concluded that it has no significant effect). Corcoran says, however, that unless school admission officers take on a more “holistic approach” that considers more than just scores, they will continue to have issues adding diversity to their student body.

Boston Latin for example uses test scores and grades for entry into the school, not taking into consideration where the prospective students are from nor if they have done their elementary and middle school years in the Boston Public School system. Nearly half the school is White as compared to the nine percent who are Black.

Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation agrees that accounting for a lot more than just test scores and grades is important and that the places that have figured this out tend to be more successful in their diversity strategy. A great example has been Chicago’s implementation of a selective enrollment system that looks at a student’s socioeconomic status as well as their academic achievement. Kahlenberg worked with the Chicago school system to develop the program in 2009 and says that following this method is not only legal (some states cannot use race as an Affirmative Action option) but will allow for a more diverse makeup as well.

And it works, says Timothy Devine, the head of the renowned Walter Payton College Prep in Chicago, the top school in both the city and state. Walter Payton is 17 percent Black, 22 percent Hispanic, 40 percent White and 10 percent Asian, which somewhat reflects the city’s racial demographics.


Aggressive recruitment of top students from all walks of life is a key part of Walter Payton’s success. Devine says that they try to visit as many of the 500 elementary schools in Chicago (which go up to the 8th grade) each year to identify students with potential. Caryn Stedman of the Connecticut International Baccalaureate Academy (CIBA) in East Hartford, CT uses a similar tactic and has seen results.

“Yes, being one of the best schools in the state will always attract the top students,” she says, “but sometimes there are students that need a nudge.”

This is true especially for Black students. Those who have the grades to get into BLS will often decide to go to either Boston Latin Academy or John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics & Science, two other magnet schools in the city— though not as prestigious— because both schools have a more multicultural makeup. Many others drop out of BLS and re-enroll elsewhere, said Cazeau-Webster.

“The most prestigious of the three schools and the one with the most cachet has the least diversity,” said Janey. “What does that tell you?”

Connecticut is unique, however, in that it is one of few states that forbid districts from letting any of their schools deviate from a more balanced racial makeup, ensuring there are always decent diversity numbers throughout all schools in the state, including their magnet schools. But not every state is like Connecticut, and places like Mississippi and Louisiana, where half of all students are Black, yet the best public schools are filled with mostly White students, still exists.

“I mean this comes down to the type of future we want? Do we want a racial divide around wealth? Unemployment? the job market?” asked Janey. “Or do we want to ensure we are preparing students to be creators of their own destinies.”

And these things matter. Sarita Thomas, a former BLS student and Boston Public Schools educator for 22 years, has a son who currently attends BLS despite Thomas dropping out of the school 30 years ago. She later enrolled in the O’Bryant School, where she says she thrived.

“I am not at all surprised by the campaign,” said Thomas, speaking of the #BlackatBLS push. “As a parent and educator in [Boston Public Schools], it is just sad to see that we haven’t progressed much in 30 years.” And as for why she sent her son to the same school: “He has things I didn’t,” she explained, “and now I know what it takes to survive there.”

Noel and Webster-Cazeau know it too, but they don’t want the future generation of Black students to feel like they have to survive BLS. And the impact of their campaign is still in the works: the local NAACP chapter has asked for the resignation of the BLS’ headmaster, Lynne Mooney Teta.

“We just want to be students and not worry about race,” says Cazeu-Webster. “That’s what this all comes down to.”

Paula Rogo is a freelance writer currently based in Boston. You can follow her on Twitter @paularogo


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