Update: School Committee chairman resigns over "hot-mic" comments.
The Boston School Committee voted unanimously early this morning to suspend the use of an exam to decide who gets into the city's three exam schools for the next year because of a raft of problems brought up by the Covid-19 pandemic, in a meeting that lasted more than 8 1/2 hours.
The committee approved a system in which the first 20% of seats at Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy and the John D. O'Bryant School are offered to Boston students with the highest pre-Covid grades in BPS, charter, private and religious schools. The remaining 80% would be offered in rounds based on grades in individual Zip codes, starting with those Zip codes with the lowest median incomes for families with at least one child under 18 - an effort to help low-income students whose families have been hit particularly hard by Covid-19.
The change would apply to sixth graders and eighth graders applying for seats at the three schools and ninth graders applying for the O'Bryant.
Members of the working group that developed the proposal and Mayor Walsh emphasized the physical dangers of forcing students to come into a school to take a standardized test in the middle of a pandemic and with the growing divide the pandemic has exposed between well off white students and black and Hispanic students in poorer neighborhoods as reasons to suspend the exam for the current school year.
Working-group and School Committee members said the vote could lead to more permanent steps that both increase minority representation in the student bodies of the three schools - in particular Boston Latin School - while leading to moves to improve the quality of the city's non-exam schools. School Superintendent Brenda Cassellius plans to make bolstering non-exam high schools a priority in her budget recommendations for the coming fiscal year.
"We need to take action in an effort to actually show our community and our nation this city is ready to move on" from decades of racism, School Committee Chairman Michael Loconto said, calling the vote "the proudest moment I've had in my 18 years in public service."
The committee voted 6-1 for steps that will include letting the working group that came up with the new policy to continue its work to find ways to more permanently increase minority representation at the exam school and to look for money to pay for extra out-of-class programs for exam-school students next year to help them adapt to their new schools. Member Hardin Coleman voted against the motion because he feels BPS needs to focus on improving all the city's high schools, not just the three exam schools.
During more than seven hours of public testimony, even some parents who said they supported greater racial equity in BPS urged the committee to postpone the vote so that they could have more time to consider the algorithms the working group used to come up with its proposal. They were joined by City Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George (at large), who said the committee was prematurely approving a system without looking at such issues as grade discrepancies both among BPS schools and between BPS and private schools.
But other parents - joined by City Councilors Kim Janey (Roxbury), Ricardo Arroyo (Hyde Park, Roslindale and Mattapan), Julia Mejia (at large) and Liz Breadon (Allston/Brighton) - urged that BPS take this step, not just because of Covid-19, but because it was past time to start dealing with the residue of Boston racism that has consistently handicapped minority students when it comes to the exam schools.
Several white parents, from neighborhoods such as West Roxbury and Roslindale, said they favored the move, even if it might make it harder for their children to get into an exam school.
Lynn Burke of Roslindale, who has a daughter in the sixth grade at the Curley School in Jamaica Plain - so somebody whom the change could directly affect - said she hopes her daughter gets into an exam school, but if she doesn't, it would be a lesson for her, that "for first time in her life the door may not swing open for her simply because of the accident of her birth."
Working-group member, and former Superintendent and BLS Headmaster, Michael Contompasis, said even just a one-year policy aimed at increasing diversity at the exam schools could lead to more permanent change. "We have seen over the years that having students of different backgrounds interchanging on a daily basis far improves what we as educators are able to do."
Although white West Roxbury parents organized much of the initial opposition to the proposal, most of the opposition in the testimony during the meeting came from Chinese-American parents, in particular in Chinatown, who said the Zip-code system was biased against them and called on the School Committee to stick with an exam, which they said could be safely given in a large space, such as the Hynes Auditorium or South Boston convention center.
Jiexia Chen said she and other parents had invested heavily - both in time and in money - to get their children ready for an exam school. Now, she said, Chinatown kids would think they couldn't get into an exam school because they're in the wrong Zip code, while kids in other Zip codes would get in without any such hard work.
Some Chinatown parents specifically blamed Black and Hispanic parents of not doing as much as them to help their kids get into the exam schools. Jingsong Cao said the test is not biased, but objective and that eliminating it could lead to "socialism and probably Communism." Sum Tan called exams "a pure reflection of talent and effort."
Derun Li said that, like Martin Luther King, he too has a dream, that one day children will be judged "not by the color and Zip code, but by the content of their character, hard work and dedication."
But Hieu Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American junior at Boston Latin School, urged the committee to suspend the exam. He said it was "outrageous" to try to force students to risk contracting a potentially fatal disease taking an entrance exam and that opening the schools to more minority students would at least provide a Band-Aid for the systemic racism they have long faced.
Kathleen Adams, who said "I am from West Roxbury and I will not apologize for that," said the proposal "smacks of favoritism and backroom deals and promises," and said it's just not fair that her daughter got into BLS with no problem a year ago, but now her son, in sixth grade, could have problems. And she said using Zip codes is itself a form of discrimination, because all Zip codes have been hit hard by Covid-19, not just poor ones.
Lauren Kelly Trimble, who has three kids in BPS, said the vote was unfair because parents were not given detailed background info on how the system would work or enough time to even consider the idea. "You're asking for us to sacrifice for others but refuse to meet us halfway and thoroughly vet your proposals," she said.
Following testimony from roughly 150 people, committee members discussed the proposal before voting.
Lorna Rivera, who has a child at the Lyndon School blased the "self righteousness" of e-mail she got that accused BPS of working to drive out the very families that made the city what it is today. "Whose city are we talking about here?" she asked. Are "black and brown residents" not also making the city what it is today. She said the proposal doesn't go far enough. "White students will continue to benefit from 32% of the seats," she said. "It's not a huge change for Asian and white families."
And like Coleman, she said BPS has to do more to uplift all its high schools. And pointing to Boston Latin School's $60-million endowment, she said BPS needs to ensure "all our schools receive the funding they need.;
Jeri Robinson said that at the heart of the matter, "even though we were talking about three schools, it really felt like we were talking about one school" - Boston Latin. "We're failing significant numbers of our students by focusing on one school."
Quoc Tran, the one Asian-American member of the School Committee, began by saying he heard Asian-American parents "loud and clear" and that he is there for them. But as a lawyer who has spent considerable time on civil-rights matters and that one thing he had learned from anti-discrimination legal efforts is that they need to "remediate past practices" - and that's why he voted for suspending the exam., because it's time to start dealing with how other minority families have long been dealt with by BPS, to "take a step back and share those benefits with others."
Michael O'Neill said that while he approved the change, he does have some concerns, such as the way the use of Zip codes might harm poor families who happen to live in Zip codes with high family median incomes.
Alexandra Oliver Davila said she hopes the vote will lead to efforts to help other Boston high schools. "If we spent this much energy on those struggling schools, perhaps they wouldn't be so struggling," she said, adding that, like River, she, too was offended by some of the e-mail she got, suggesting the change would lead to some sort of rigor deficit at the exam schools.
Loconto apologized twice during the meeting. He apologized to sixth graders and their parents for the extra stress the change could mean for them.
And he apologized for the point during the meeting when it appeared he was making fun of certain ethnic names. He said he wasn't, that he was talking to somebody in his house about a particular book for a moment when he thought he was on mute, only it turned out he wasn't, but that it had nothing to do with the meeting. He did not name the book.