Race issues at Boston Latin demand change

Crisis presents opportunity for systemic reforms

THE RACIAL CRISIS roiling Boston Latin School requires immediate attention, which could have an impact on public education policy in Boston and the Commonwealth.

Last year two of Boston Latin’s best and brightest students were victimized by racial taunts they witnessed on social media. According to black students at the school, racism is widespread. Many students have accused the school’s leadership of being indifferent to this climate. There have been calls for justice and fairness even as Boston school officials sort out exactly what happened.

But what does justice look like in policy terms for the two girls at Latin — and thousands of other students attending public schools across the state? And can the current Boston Latin case provide us a moment to take a broader look at needed changes in the state’s public school system?

The problems at Boston Latin do not exist within a vacuum. Systemic problems are at play that preclude a fair education for all. The woes at Boston Latin are a mere symptom of a larger pedagogical and political malady.

For instance, closing the achievement gap or addressing the lack of diversity of teachers in Boston remain persistent problems. And there are other related issues of disproportionate school expulsion for black and Latino male students across the Commonwealth.

Can a concerted push for fairness on behalf of the two girls who spoke out at Boston Latin translate also into new policies? Will legislation and increased public education funding help close the gaps in education attainment among blacks, whites, and Latinos as well as between the rich and poor across the Commonwealth?

The resignation of Boston Latin head master Lynne Mooney Teta is necessary. But that is only a cosmetic first step.

The racial crisis at Boston Latin should lead us to consider deeper and broader education policy solutions — solutions that address systemic inequity.

We should consider taking action in four big areas.

First, the Massachusetts Legislature must revisit and revise the state’s anti-bullying law. The Joint Committee on Education — led by Alice Peisch in the House and Sonia Chang-Diaz in the Senate — should move immediately to ensure an anti-bullying law in our schools that reflects consistency and accountability across the state’s school systems.

The law currently lacks clarity and clear enforcement mechanisms. The Legislature must develop specific language on the protocols to be followed when bullying in our schools occurs. Unfortunately, current statutes leave the development of anti-bullying plans to local school districts. They provide only a “framework” of policy, with no real standards, shared rules, or level of accountability. That’s a mistake.

A uniform and clearly communicated anti-bullying law is essential for the Commonwealth — for protecting teachers, administrators, and students. The law must be applicable at all schools across the state. And when anti-bullying laws are broken, the consequences must be clear and swift.

Second, we should make serious strides toward ensuring the city of Boston is in compliance with the federal mandate that 25 percent of all Boston school teachers are black.

During the busing desegregation battles of the 1970s, Judge Arthur Garrity established the minimum hiring mandate that the number of African-Americans teachers roughly match the proportion of black students attending the city’s schools. Garrity also set up a 10 percent “other” minority teacher hiring mandate for non-African-Americans.

But according to the Black Educators’ Alliance of Massachusetts (BEAM), the federal mandate on black teacher hiring has consistently fallen short. In response, BEAM executive director Johnny McInnis has recommended the following to ensure teacher diversity:

  • Restoration of adequate staffing and budget to the BPS recruitment efforts so that a deep pool of diverse, excellent teacher candidates can be referred to schools;
  • Early hiring of high potential external candidates and rehiring of high performing provisional teachers who are needed to ensure compliance and diversity;
  • Staffing processes that ensure teacher diversity in all schools; monitoring and oversight of teacher diversity by the BPS Office of Equity.

Boston Latin, like many other Boston schools, fails at teacher diversity.

Perhaps if teacher diversity is not achieved over the next five years, the state or federal government should consider taking the Boston public school system into receivership.

Third, state lawmakers must commit to increasing public education funding, especially for students in urban communities who are vying for opportunities to attend schools like Boston Latin.

This funding must target intellectually gifted students who currently lack access to high quality classroom instruction, intense after school tutoring support, and the presence of highly effective administrators. Increased public education funding must also focus more resources on the arts, sports, and creative problem-solving.

The bottom line is that if we fail to target urban youth at the pre-school level, we may lose a generation of students who possess the talent to attend schools like Boston Latin.

Fourth, lawmakers can call for new standards of admission at exam schools like Boston Latin. Giving students who’ve attended public schools their whole life certain preference on the Boston Latin entrance exam may be a good start.

Many students at Boston Latin come from private and well-resourced elementary schools that prepare them for success. Those advantages should not be enjoyed only by wealthy families who invest significantly in high school preparation. Poor students must also be given an even chance at success at schools like Boston Latin from day one. Such supports must be intentionally provided at the elementary school level.

Meet the Author

What’s currently broken at Boston Latin presents an opportunity for systemic educational reform that can have an impact statewide. If we pay attention — and seize the public educational opportunities present today  — we will find ourselves in a much better place tomorrow.

Kevin C. Peterson is a democracy activist and founder of the New Democracy Coalition.