Diversity lessons

A well-integrated Massachusetts public school is a rare commodity. We’re making a virtue of that for our students and families.

IN A CITY with a difficult history of race relations, one of the most important strengths schools can give our students is the ability to communicate across racial lines. Boston Collegiate Charter School, located in Dorchester and with a student body that mirrors the demographics of a changing city, has had to navigate difficult conversations around race, diversity, and immigration. For all the progress that has been made on these issues, these conversations seem as important today as they’ve ever been—maybe more so. They are critical if we are going to overcome systemic issues and ingrained biases in our city.

Our road to racial diversity was partly serendipitous and partly deliberate. When we first opened our doors in 1998 as South Boston Harbor Academy, our student body was 95 percent white. As one of the first charter schools to open in Boston, we often received attention for our lack of integration, especially against the backdrop of the neighborhood that was then our home, with its controversial history around busing and desegregation.

In 2004, in pursuit of additional space for our growing student body, we moved to a new campus in Dorchester. There, we began to organically attract a more diverse student population through our public lottery admission process. By 2010, the school was 55 percent white, 44 percent African-American, Latino, or multiracial, and 1 percent Asian.  Today, we are 48 percent white, 50 percent African-American, Latino, or multiracial, and 2 percent Asian.

Boston Collegiate Charter School seniors Jocelyn Valencia and Berklee Joseph-Ferrara. (Photo courtesy of Kindra Clineff Photography)

As a point of comparison, demographics of the population of the City of Boston are 45 percent white, 45 percent African-American, Latino, and multiracial, and 9 percent Asian. Only nine other public schools in the city have enrollment of white students exceeding 40 percent, and eight of them are in predominantly white neighborhoods—West Roxbury, South Boston, Charlestown, and the North End. Besides Boston Latin School (which is an anomaly in our city for many reasons), none are high schools. At BCCS, we’ve realized the unique diversity of our school presents an opportunity to take a more holistic approach to our mission, which is to prepare each student for college. Along with having strong academic skills, being prepared for college, in part, means being able to talk to people who don’t look like you when you get there.

At BCCS, we have white Irish Catholics from West Roxbury and Somali families from Roxbury, Cape Verdean families from Dorchester and Latino families from Hyde Park. More to the point, we have parents of BCCS students who were on opposite sides of Boston’s busing crisis in the 1970s—white people who were bused to Roxbury from South Boston, and African-American people who were bused to South Boston. Over the years, we’ve taught the students about the history of busing in the 1970s. We’ve discussed the gentrification of certain city neighborhoods and students’ anxieties about not being able to afford to stay in their homes.

Sixth graders Dhruv Soni, Zachary Liu, and Dejahn Pina. (Photo courtesy of Kindra Clineff Photography)

The diversity of our school means that we cannot only focus on academic rigor and a college preparatory curriculum. We also need for faculty and staff to work with each other and with students to challenge stereotypes and implicit biases. For example, our Multicultural Club students created an #ItooamBCCS campaign, modeled on #Itooamharvard, in which students of all backgrounds share prejudices that others held about them and debunked them. We also hold class retreats, including overnight trips for the junior and senior classes – with bonfires, ropes courses, and personal storytelling to bridge differences. Most recently, one of our teachers launched a course, “Democracy in America,” which allows the students to dig into issues of democracy in a diverse society. Students know that respect and appreciation of other cultures, races, and religions is embedded in our school culture.

In order to establish real dialogue about what is happening in our own school in the context of an increasingly fragmented country, we realized the conversation would have to extend beyond our students to include their families. We created a Family Advisory Council on Diversity to bring families of students together to talk about cultural differences and share their experiences in today’s Boston, which is diverse at the city level, but insular at the neighborhood level. We talk about the racial issues that emerge at BCCS, and how the school handles them. For example, we discussed how the school handled excusing absences for a student walkout in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, a move that was lauded by many of our families of color but that caused great concern among some of our white families who work in law enforcement. We talked about the experience of our Muslim students at a school like BCCS, and visited the Islamic Cultural Center in Roxbury to learn first-hand about the challenges of being Muslim in Boston. Sometimes we get it right, and sometimes we don’t, but the conversations about how to handle the issues that emerge in our diverse community strengthen the school.

While many families fled Boston following desegregation in the 1970s for fear the quality of education would plummet, at BCCS we have found that academic performance has improved as our school became more integrated. In 2000, 74 percent of our eighth grade students scored proficient/advanced on the English MCAS, while only 18 percent scored proficient/advanced in math. By 2014, 96 percent of our 8th grade students scored proficient/advanced on the English MCAS, while 77 percent scored proficient/advanced in math. In 2016, US News & World Report ranked BCCS number 13 among all public high schools in Massachusetts, outscoring a number of well-regarded suburban schools. Since the first graduating class of 2004, 100 percent of our graduates have been accepted to four-year colleges.

Our unique challenge and opportunity became even more obvious when the 2016 presidential election sparked nationwide incidents of hatred and bullying around race, immigration, and religion. On the day after the election, our Muslim students in their hijabs entered the building while a white student walked in wearing “Make America Great Again” socks. We are in a national moment in which what bubbled beneath the surface is now front and center. And in this context, we strive to assure that our school’s inclusive culture can prevail through toxic times.

We’ve found that the best way to build bridges is to simply inhabit the same space, and to work alongside one another on a common mission. A performance of BCCS students at the nearby Strand Theatre has as diverse a crowd as one can find in Boston, and our graduation, on that same stage, showcases the accomplishments of families from each part of the city. It turns out that celebrating the achievements of a group of 65 seniors from all over Boston who are headed off to college is just the kind of thing that brings people together.

Exposure to all sides of the human experience takes time, but hearing from all sides is an important component of critical thinking, which all students will need once they’re in college. More importantly, exposure to others’ experiences builds a habit of empathy that students will need to be good people in life beyond college. It’s hard to vilify the race or ethnicity of someone with whom you have to do a group project, or who is your co-lead in a musical production, or who is responsible for coding your team’s robot.

We see diversity as a source of our strength. But our diverse student population is a rarity among urban public schools, which are overwhelmingly minority-majority. Meanwhile, racial isolation of minority families in the suburbs is even more stark.

A 2016 report by the US Government Accountability Office found that between the 2000-2001 and 2013-2014 school years, the percentage of racially and economically concentrated K-12 public schools grew from 9 percent to 16 percent. GAO defined this “concentration” as 75 to 100 percent African-American, Latino, and low income. GAO found that “compared with other schools, these schools offered disproportionately fewer math, science, and college preparatory courses and had disproportionately higher rates of students who were held back in 9th grade, suspended, or expelled.”

One need only look to our nation’s urban centers to see precisely where these schools are.

To be clear, schools that are predominantly high poverty and serving students of color and that are achieving excellent student outcomes and closing achievement gaps should be celebrated for their successes. It takes hard work to surmount systemic obstacles, and schools that have figured this out are beacons for others that haven’t. Diversity, without corresponding achievement, is not what we’re after. At the same time, black and brown children growing up—and being educated—in a racial vacuum are not prepared well for the college campuses they will hopefully set foot upon, or the workforce they will enter upon graduation. White suburban children are equally denied diverse perspectives when they are sheltered from the challenges faced by, and the rich experiences of, children of different races and ethnic backgrounds from their own.

The factors that contribute to isolation are far beyond the control of school districts. Recent studies have shown that America is becoming a more segregated place to live, and the link between housing and education is undeniable. This is true even in Boston, a city that has invested in trying to provide access to quality schools across zip codes by not relying exclusively on a neighborhood school model.

Meet the Author

Shannah Varón

Exec. Dir., Boston Collegiate Charter School
There’s a lot to balance in schooling: quality and proximity to home being just two of the many values that are important to parents of school-aged children. The case for diversity, though, is also worth making, and doesn’t get made nearly enough. Embracing diversity and providing opportunities for children of different backgrounds to learn about—and from—each other will challenge prejudices head on. That’s our best hope for a more harmonious, connected future, and a real democracy.

Shannah Varón is the executive director of Boston Collegiate Charter School in Dorchester, which serves 700 students in grades 5-12.