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Boston Latin School head: Fix other BPS schools; don't destroy the exam schools

Rachel Skerrit, head of school at Boston Latin School, explains why she feels Tom Keane doesn't know what he's talking about in calling for the elimination of the city's three exam schools.

In a message to BLS parents yesterday, Skerritt, herself a BLS graduate, writes:

As critical conversations are taking place in our city about how we can ensure that students from all racial and socio-economic backgrounds have the preparation and access to pursue the opportunity of Boston's exam schools, I'd like to briefly address an opinion piece that appeared in Sunday's Boston Globe magazine asserting that the city's educational landscape would be improved if the exam schools were eliminated. While I typically do not respond to media criticism of BLS, I feel compelled to do so in this case.

I am dismayed by the suggestion that the dismantling of three schools - all recognized for multiple years in a row as among the top public secondary schools in the state - would achieve positive outcomes for the students and families of Boston. One of the reasons the writer gives to support this claim is a study that suggested exam school education has no impact on the students who attend. As someone whose own life trajectory was changed due to the opportunities that Boston Latin School afforded me and my family, and as someone who has engaged with thousands of BLS students and alumni, many with stories like mine, I find this statement to be patently false. I attended Boston Public Schools as the child of a single parent who would not have access to a similar college preparatory experience were there not public exam school options in Boston. My mother immigrated to the U.S. when she was in middle school; she did not attend college, and had neither the income nor the knowledge of the educational landscape to explore other school options for me. Fortunately, she did not have to. Boston Latin School ensured that I was prepared to excel in college and exposed me to experiences in leadership and the arts that have shaped my professional and personal passions.

Our faculty and staff, with support of the Boston Latin School Association, continue to work incredibly hard to facilitate academic and extra-curricular opportunities that propel today's students forward not only toward successful college study, but also toward meaningful and rewarding lives, the impacts of which cannot solely be measured during the short years of high school.

All of Boston's students, whether or not they attend an exam school, should be prepared for post-secondary success, yet this is currently not the case. This is an issue that should be of great concern to all of us. However, closing schools that graduate college-ready students is not the solution. Surely BLS requires reflection, improvement, and evolution to meet the needs of every one of our scholars, and I commit to continued transparency about where we struggle and where we shine. All of us receiving this email - as families, students, and staff - have chosen to be a part of the BLS journey. As a proud alumna, I am humbled by the opportunity to lead our school community and am inspired daily by your strength and commitment.

As always, we wish you and your loved ones good health and positive spirits.


Rachel Skerritt ‘95
Head of School


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What public good do the exam schools provide?

I ask this as someone who attended the singular public high school in a suburb of Boston.

Voting closed 26

An elite education that gives city kids a chance to get into colleges that only rich kids otherwise would.

BPS has a big enough budget, maybe their teachers should do their jobs and teach the kids so they are smart enough to pass the exam and get in.

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They allow higher achieving students opportunities for enrichment and engagement that aren’t available in other schools? They give low income students an educational environment that does not exist in their neighborhood? They allow families and students living in the city to attend to schools that rival those in wealthier suburbs without having to move away? They serve as the few sources of pride we can have in our public school system?

I phrase as questions since I neither attended or taught in the Boston schools.

Voting closed 58

I mean maybe you will. Or you could have read the article and letter as it outlines quite well many of the benefits of the exam schools, and why they are good and give a chance to kids in the city that is generally afforded to kids from wealthy suburbs with singular (or perhaps two) high schools and a plethora of private options.

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Is hard, but try going through the whole article and not just the headline.

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To Brian: a viable education option for parents in Boston who would otherwise live in Milton, Needham, Newton, Belmont, Arlington, Lexington, Sudbury, and so on. Or would send their kids to private school.

When my partner and I were deciding whether to buy in Boston or a suburb, Latin was (and is) the plan. We get to watch and see how things develop over the next six years before our kids get to 7th grade, though we’re already bummed that Advanced Work is out.

Tom Keane’s a pretty crappy marketer. He tells us all the reasons to do away with exam schools, none of the benefits. He offers up this tripe about “illuminating them all” as if that’ll just magically happen when the exam schools disappear. Hey, Keane might be right about that, but without some really compelling reasons to believe, many families won’t stick around to find out.

Voting closed 18

The exam schools meet the needs of a large group of Boston students - for challenge, engagement, and more. That's why they exist. No other schools in Boston meet this need.

That's one of the reasons why this year's drastic change in the admissions policy is bizarre and shocking. There was no discussion of or plan to meet the needs of students "shifted" (BPS' word) out of the exam schools. The way this decision was made, a closed process with a pre-determined outcome that did not consider the impacts on so many students, is itself a clear warning to families considering BPS.

No honest, knowledgeable person can say that closing the exam schools will have a meaningful positive impact on the open enrollment schools in BPS. Middle class families of all backgrounds leave Boston; others choose charters, METCO, private schools or the many BPS selective admission schools. Those, together, add up to far more students than the exam schools. They could close the exam schools tomorrow and it wouldn't change that, it would only shift families to those alternatives. Which means it wouldn't help the open enrollment schools in Boston. (So consider what this is this really about - political power in Boston.)

It's unfortunate that BLS Head of School Skerritt only now seems to be waking up to the bigger picture in BPS and Boston, after going along with the disastrous admissions plan.

As for the academic study referenced in the article that Tom Keane linked - it's an easy, tired, misleading way for people who don't understand the study to make an argument they already believed in.

But they seem not to be reading the second part of the article, where the author herself shreds the academic study. Anyone quoting this study either has no understanding of what it says, or is intentionally being misleading.

The study says nothing about most students in selective schools - it only looks at those on the margin of being in or out.

At least for the students just on the margin of admission to exam schools, the schools have no measurable academic achievement or postsecondary outcomes ...

While a strength of the regression-discontinuity design is that we obtain causal effects for students who are just on the margin of admission, a weakness is that we can’t estimate effects for students who were certain of admission [that is, the vast majority of students in the schools]

And the study only looks at a narrow range of outcomes for that narrow range of students: test scores and college admissions. But every parent and student with a clue knows there is so much more to any school than test scores. And on the things that matter most to most parents, the study says nothing:

These students may well be happier, more engaged, or safer at these schools. [But this study says nothing about those critical factors, for schools where students spend 4-6 of the most impactful years of their lives.]

Those linking to this article also seem to have missed this:

But getting rid of the test is not the answer.

While this article guarantees some clicks and attention, it's deeply misleading. Parents and students know better.

Voting closed 13

Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines.

Good links from Keane. Only a personal story from Skerritt. This round to Keane.


What do the researchers conclude? They find a precisely zero effect of the exam schools on college attendance, college selectivity, and college graduation. They put the data through the grinder, and that’s the unexciting result. Findings for Boston’s exam schools are the same, with a bonus finding of zero effect on test scores, including the SAT and PSAT. The authors note that it is still possible that the schools affect outcomes later in life, such as employment or wealth. But, if so, any such effect does not operate through attendance at an elite college.


“The major advantage of selective schools is that they provide a more desirable school environment,” the paper explains. “Students are more likely to feel positive about their high school experiences at selective schools.”

Still, that didn’t translate into higher high school graduation, college attendance, or college completion rates. Students from low-income neighborhoods actually ended up at less-selective colleges, on average, as a result of going to a top high school.

“Schools can look like they have a large effect on student outcomes, while these apparent successes should actually be attributed to the students themselves,” the Chicago researchers say.


Of course, test scores and peer effects are only part of the exam school story. It may be that preparation for exam school entrance is itself worth- while. The RD design captures the impact of peer composition and possibly other changes at admissions cutoffs, while ignoring effects common to appli- cants on both sides. Likewise, unique features of an exam school education may boost achievement in specific subject areas. Students who attend Boston Latin School almost certainly learn more Latin than they would have other- wise.

(ooh, male ardeat!)

And, on the other hand:

I attended Boston Public Schools as the child of a single parent who would not have access to a similar college preparatory experience were there not public exam school options in Boston.

This statement is falsifiable. Not only do students who fail to get into the exam school do just as well as if they had (according to the above studies), if Boston did not have exam schools at the time that Skerrit attended high school in Boston, the most likely college-bound students who attend the exam schools would be distributed throughout the other high schools in Boston, and the other high schools in Boston would offer a stronger college-prep curriculum to meet their needs. She would likely have done just as well. Maybe instead of having such a strong affection for BLS, she would have a strong affection for a different school.

Now, before the Cult of Latin comes down on my head, I want to clarify that I don't agree with the proposal to abolish the exam schools. I just find that Skerrit has not responded adequately to the opposing argument. Stories of oppression and redemption are a dime a dozen these days; they're almost necessary to get into college. Obviously, she believes that the school is responsible for her success. That doesn't mean it's true, though; the school preaches its excellence with the fervor of a tent revival.

I would rather Boston had more selective and/or specialized public schools rather than fewer. I would like to see our local universities become more involved in the schools. And I would like to see regional magnet schools in Boston. It is unseemly that public math and science education in Boston loses out to Worcester year after year.

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We don't need a study to tell us that many cities and towns that don't have exam schools
(or busing) are able to send kids to Ivy league schools and perform ok on the MCAS. None of these studies take into effect White (Asian) flight, and the reasons behind it, whether imagined or real.

Safety of students in schools? Not mentioned anywhere in any of those studies. I'm sure there are statistics somewhere on violence rates in high schools. I'm guessing they correlate to adult criminal statistics. Those factors are always on parents minds and are not reflected in these studies or mentioned by either person above.

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Skimming through that research paper I cannot tell who they were comparing to whom. They mention doing a "fuzzy regression discontinuity" analysis but what groups are they comparing? Are they comparing students who attended BLS against similarly ranked students who attended BLA?

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The comparison is between kids who were just at the cutoff in scores. So one more point would get them into the school, one less point sends them elsewhere, then you compare their outcomes. In this case it looks like any exam school in Boston vs. not going to an exam school. Get enough sample and you approximate a random control trial (with some testable assumptions). It's a really strong design for this sort of research study, and it's conclusions are pretty compelling.

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What about the kids who scored really well on the entrance exam? They probably would have withered in a regular school.

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I agree it's ultimately a war of statistics. If you disband all three exam schools and scatter the kids who were statistically going to do well (the white, upper-middle, two-college-degree-parent, kids), the statistical "quality" of the other public schools will go up.... because those kids will now have their MCAS and graduation rates and college acceptance rates all counted for those other public schools. Probably not as much of a rise as the people pushing this plan think, because a lot of them will be pushed to charters or there will be a huge rush of housing inventory in the southern neighborhoods as people move, but sure, some statistical rise in the measurements of quality we use to assess whether a high school is good or not.

But did anything at the other schools ACTUALLY change or ACTUALLY improve? Did they suddenly get AP classes and invested guidance councilors and high level curriculum (and the supports to actually achieve it)? Did the schools start managing to address the variety of social ills (aka POVERTY) that aren't their job but are the real driver behind these statistics, and so now the kids who weren't doing better suddenly are?

Maybe instead of having conversation 930482093842 about the fucking exam schools, some of these would-be champions of justice should call up English High, whose teachers and admin have been working tirelessly and without ANY recognition to raise the graduation rate from like 50% in 2015 (FIFTY PERCENT) to nearly 80% this year, and ask them what they want and need, and give it to them!! Start THROWING RESOURCES into ACTUALLY helping the kids who were not going to "do well anyway" instead of thinking spreading out the 'sure-thing' kids is going to suddenly give students with issues three meals a day and a stable roof on their head and a parent who can help with homework and etc etc etc all the statistical factors they're saying make the exam schools irrelevant.

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It's not coincidental at all that the people who decried the loss of "neighborhood schools" to bussing also relentlessly defend a system that diverts top scoring students out of schools across the city into magnet schools. People will use whatever defense of segregation happens to work at the time.

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If you look closely at the so-called "statistics", the authors compare students who barely made the cut-off for the O'Bryant with students who just missed the cut-off. Arguably, those students are less prepared than those who are comfortably within the cut-off for BLA, and much less prepared than those who are comfortably within the cut-off for BLS. It's an apples-to-oranges comparison that fails to capture the diversity of academic ability within each school.

There's also the point that under-prepared students from Holy Name are skewing these results by benefitting from extremely generous grade inflation. In an ideal world where GPAs are standardized across the city, the exam schools would be arguably more diverse and their impacts would be much more evident.

Furthermore, the authors measure academic success using just MCAS test scores, which, like most other standardized tests, have been subject to much criticism for being unfair to (non-Asian) minorities. On page 178, the authors also write that there is no evidence of "racial composition effects" (i.e. no benefits from being in a racially-diverse environment). In other words, those who want to change up the existing admissions system, such as abolishing the exam to promote greater racial diversity, are actually contradicting themselves by citing this study...

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then what would be gained by un-selectifying the schools anyway?

I attended BPS the whole way through and graduated from BLS. It was a relief not to be constantly distracted by disruptive conduct. And it was great training for navigating drudgery and obstinate authority figures—I mean this sincerely, those are useful skills that many people I met in college had not developed.

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I would be interested to see what University A's analysis of a student from an exam school, versus a non-exam school, would have on the overall effectiveness of said school to prep the student. Said differently, wouldn't a university have a profile of high schools that would level the playing field across exam and non-exam schools? Wouldn't this play into "effect of the exam schools on college attendance, college selectivity, and college graduation."

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The study comparing "cusp kids" is odd to me. I am not sure it really concludes anything other than being the small fish in the big pond is about the same as being the big fish in the small pond, and I'm not sure what that proves anyway. (The result was that being the lowest scoring kid at the higher tier school is the same as being the highest scoring kid at the lower tier school, and therefore the actual school had no effect?) If we liken this to sports, we would say that the best performers in Division II are just as good as the worst performers in Division I, but does that mean Division I does not hone and sharpen players at the top? The study makes no statements or conclusions about those who were comfortably selected (non-"cusp").

People talk a lot about the exam part of the exam schools, but the exam is only the beginning. Once one is in an exam school, they are in an environment of co-opetition, which, although not clear in the first years, is made clear the year they start handing out the class rankings. By pooling the top kids together, they are made to compete with one another and thereby push each other. Does that produce more able kids? Similarly, does pooling all the best athletes into leagues like the NFL or NBA not produce the best play?

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It is completely plausible that the marginal student at an exam school would have about the same outcome at a non-exam school.

It does not follow from that data point that the *average* student at an exam school, who is in a better position to take advantage of the unique offerings that an exam school makes possible — AP classes, advanced classwork, etc. — would have the same experience at a non-exam school.

By way of comparison: it is entirely plausible that the marginal (i.e., least sick) patient at Children's Hospital Boston would do just as well at their pediatrician office. No one would infer from that data point that the average patient at Children's does not benefit from the unique resources of that institution, and we can just tear it down and replace it with an urgent care clinic.

Voting closed 20

How about this one?

the unique offerings that an exam school makes possible — AP classes, advanced classwork, etc.

The assumption that these things are not possible outside of an exam school is faulty. Furthermore, there can be, and already are, non-exam schools that offer certain AP classes, and advanced classwork, that Boston's exam schools don't.

One of the principal arguments of the abolitionists is that the existence of the exam schools reduces the advanced work and AP classes offered at other public high schools.

I find the comparison with Children's inapt, as a hospital benefits from an efficiency of scale that doesn't transfer well to education: a doctor who sets a dozen arms a day probably comes to do it more expertly than one who sets an arm every few months, but a teacher cannot work more effectively by delivering the same lecture every day (much as some might try).

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These well intended, but boneheaded, attempts to shut down exam schools or eliminate any selectivity in the admissions process will result in many families leaving the city.

BPS is already seeing declining numbers of students, particularly from families with working, well-educated parents. These middle & upper-middle class families in "nice" and expensive areas of Boston (West Roxbury, Southie, JP) choose to stay in the city because they care about Boston and their children have access to good secondary education via exam schools.

These families can afford to move to suburbs with excellent schools and reasonable property taxes. Without the exam schools as a magnet for families, I think many will pick up and move. They will take their tax dollars with them, they will no longer fundraise for elementary schools, and our neighborhoods will further hollow-out leaving only the poorest Bostonians and the absolute richest behind.

Voting closed 54

Schools across the country have declining enrollment simply because of the 2009 recession and subsequent drop in the birthrate, which never went back up.

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You can't simultaneously argue that 1, Eliminating selective admissions would "ruin" the exam schools; and 2, the other BPS schools can be upgraded to the level of exam schools.

If your school's quality depends on selectivity, then by definition non-selective schools can't achieve that quality.

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And it's not like the teachers there are on the cutting edge of educational pedagogy. I'm sure there are great teachers there, but the school isn't recognized for it's award winning curriculums or innovative programs. The school is recognized as "great" because all of the students have great test scores and get into "great" colleges.

Don't get me wrong, the young people are fantastic and I have high hopes for the world they will create, but let's not forget that high test scores and selectivity are the main reasons the school is "great."

The school could still be great if they became a little less selective. In fact it and other schools could be even better if we stopped judging schools on test scores altogether. Take a look at Boston Arts Academy.

Voting closed 32

Have you looked at BAA MCAS scores, graduation and college admission rates in contrast to the three exam schools? It's night and day. BAA is where you go when you're not a good "fit" for exam schools. Sorry.

Voting closed 17

Is the Arts academy becoming less selective? Last I checked you had to have a portfolio, no?

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BAA is a good example of why you're wrong. It uses a different type of "exam", but it's otherwise exactly the same idea.

BAA has a very selective admissions process. It creates an environment where students who are committed to learning about subjects they are interested in - in this case, music, and performing and visual arts - can engage deeply, in a community of others with the same interests.

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BAA is a selective school so not sure what your point is?

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We happen to live next to Boston Arts Academy. We heard it’s a very good school. Every morning and afternoon we see their students walking by in groups and shouting expletives to each other. Perhaps that’s typical of BPS students, including the ones in the exam schools?

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They need to keep selecting kids via testing in order to keep testing well. I graduated from BLA and now work as a high school teacher elsewhere - there's nothing special about what that school is doing, they just have a student body made up of kids who test well.

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To identify the reasons for low admission rates of African American and Latinx students into Boston’s exam schools, you have to look at the published data.

The publication that directly deals with Boston’s exam schools is a 2018 white paper from Harvard Kennedy school’s Rappaport Institute. This paper (Reference 1) by Goodman and Rucinski (Oct 2018) is titled: "Increasing Diversity in Boston’s Exam Schools". The authors demonstrate that Black and Latinx enrollment into BLS can be increased by about 50% if you use MCAS scores, and disregard GPAs and ISEE scores. They show that Black and Latinx students with equivalent MCAS scores get assigned lower GPAs than White and Asian students. Black and Latinx students with the same MCAS score obtain lower ISEE score as well, presumably because many questions in the math section of ISEE have not yet been taught in their schools (well off students are taught these concepts by private tutors).

Other cities have tried to increase diversity by diluting the admission criteria through a system of tiers based on socioeconomic criteria. These have been counterproductive. Outcomes data from exam schools in Chicago (Reference 2) shows that students who scored low on standardized exams, but were admitted into an exam-school because of their socioeconomic tier, had worse outcomes than their peers (from the same socioeconomic tier) who barely missed the cutoff score. These students who made it into exam schools were less likely to attend selective colleges, and less likely to graduate.

The following steps will increase diversity while maintaining academic standards, in Boston’s exam schools.

1. Use an appropriate standardized test.

2. Get rid of GPAs as a metric for admissions: It is subjective and very easy to game.

3. Provide funding for additional tutoring and didactic activities, for schools that are low performing.

4. Do not dilute the academic expectations from economically disadvantaged children. Do not perpetuate the soft racism of low expectations.

Why use standardized tests?

People who disparage standardized tests do not understand the function that these tests serve. Any student who works on improving verbal reasoning, and mathematical skills will do well in standardized tests. These tests are not designed to unearth extraordinary abilities. Standardized exams are designed to identify two attributes, hard work and cognitive ability. Those are the very attributes that determine success in life. The same rules that apply to sports, apply to learning: Abilities are acquired and strengthened through repeated practice. Hard work and perseverance can make anyone good at test taking. Hard work and perseverance can make anyone knowledgeable and intelligent.

Exams are fair, exams are just. Exams level the playing field. Don’t kill the exam. Don’t kill the exam school.

1. https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/joshuagoodman/files/rappaport_brief.pd...

2. https://consortium.uchicago.edu/publications/selective-enrollment-high-s...

Voting closed 66

Standardized tests are not designed to, nor do they measure, hard work. They are only designed to and measure what the test taker knows and can do within a certain margin of error.

If you can afford a test prep class or tutor you will do better on the test.

No one is talking about lowering expectations. People are talking about increasing access and opportunities.

Who makes the questions on exams? How are the questions normed to ensure that they are fair? Why are Black and Brown students not scoring as high on these exams? Are you saying that Black and Brown students don't work hard enough or don't have the same cognitive ability? If you're not saying that, then just what are you saying?

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The problem with BPS is not the exam schools, why is this so hard to realize. For over 40 years now, since busing, multiple Mayors, school committee’s and superintendent have failed the students of Boston. All the Students of Boston. Much of the inequality that existed in 1972 still exists today. Fix the root problem. Do not destroy the exam schools because they are flawed. Yes, I write this as a BLS alumnus. The study using regression whatever to say that exam schools have zero effect on college admission, SAT scores etc. is bull. It does not pass the smell test. Add in the idea that students from low-income neighborhoods went to less selective colleges when attending exam schools is laughable. I know from my experience and that of many others through out he years how BLS changed out lives.
Fix the problem do not destroy the system in the process.

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Yes, let's fix the problem. Let's give every Boston Public High School a $65,000,000 endowment that generates enough income to fund $2,410,083 for expenses "designed to supplement funding of programs in technology, library, the arts, music, drama, athletics and the general academic program" at each high school. And let's pay the President of each of these "Associations" more than the Head of School.


There are 33 high schools in Boston. 32 need endowments x $65,000,000 = $2,080,000,000. Only 2 billion dollars! Problem solved.

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Why don't you start by organizing one for the school your child attends and contribute the first donation to it? The BLSA didn't pop up out of nowhere and is funded by alumni donations. Good luck, anonymous internet commenter, I am sure you have this!

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Do you not understand that what you're describing isn't public school?

If school funding comes from its alums and its students come from disproportionately wealthy families because its admissions process selects for them, you end up with what is essentially a private school with private funding.

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176 years ago. So equal funding in the year 2197 - wait - that assumes you stop giving money to the BLSA, ok?

I've organized and raised funds for my kids' BPS schools. Maybe a 50/50 raffle would do the trick. Thanks!

Voting closed 15

I still do not understand how it is legal for a public school to have an endowment that is for the exclusie use of just that institution, and not the whole district. To think that the alumni of a small elementary school can rival the giving power of the city's "elite" school is complete garbage.

The BPS school my kids' attended (Curley) raised $100,000 for a new library, and something like $250,000 for a playing field. While I was proud of our ability to raise those funds, and all the hard work that went into those projects by the community, I am horrified that those sorts of numbers can't be replicated by SPC groups around the district. As long as any public school is relying on outside funding for essential functions of the school day, we have a problem.

I agree getting rid of Exam Schools is not the solution. Get rid of BLS's special financial status, and equal the playing field between BLS and BLA / O'Bryant, and all the other high schools.

Voting closed 15

By that logic, why do we need any kind of subsidized housing - why don't people who need housing in Boston just go out and buy it? After all, that's what people who own housing in Boston did, so it must work for everyone, right?

There certainly aren't any structural or system inequalities that would mean that BLS alums have access to more money that alums of other schools in the Boston Public School system, right? Probably alums from other schools just didn't work hard enough to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, I guess.

Voting closed 17

Boston spends the most, per student, of any city in the state. Walsh gave Cassellius $100 million extra with no strings. And she cannot even get K-5 open on time and had to ask for an extension. Did she think that students would never return to the schools?

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The exam schools have the lowest budgets per student in BPS, by far, even after including the funds provided by the endowment (about $1400 per student per year at BLS).

Click near to top to show the amounts per student:

Voting closed 15

Two studies, one by economists from Duke and MIT, the other from economists at Princeton and Harvard, are "bull", because they do not pass your "smell test"? Really, if you're going to stand up for the reputations of elite academic institutions like Boston Latin School, why do you treat Duke, MIT, Princeton, and Harvard with such disrespect?

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use housing data and other socio economic data to draw conclusions. they attempt to prove the negative, that if exam schools did not exist , this would happen. So yes i think they stink. I also know from first hand experience for me and for multiples of others what Latin school meant to them and their academic and personal growth. The City failed to fix the underlying inequities that caused busing in 1974. We still have the same issues. Fix the cause of that. it isn't exam schools

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Perhaps the Celtics should practice what they preach. Asians are underrepresented in the NBA, we need a quota. Also, to ensure equity, short players should be allowed to climb on a couple of crates, so that they can dunk.

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