“Happy to be home,” Latin School’s new headmaster gets busy right away

Michael Contompasis, who has served as interim headmaster of Boston Latin School over the last year, handed over the keys to the school on Rachel Skerritt’s first official day as headmaster, Nov. 1. Boston Latin School Association photo

“I am so happy to be home,” Rachel Skerritt told a sold-out room of alumni, parents, and faculty last Saturday evening at the “Celebration of Latin School Annual Dinner” at the Marriott Long Wharf Hotel.

The 39-year-old native of Grove Hall, who graduated from the school in 1995, has hit the ground running in the three weeks she has been the headmaster at the venerable institution. At the celebration, Skerritt jokingly referred to her early weeks as head of school as “sluggish” before listing off the dozens of rallies, meetings, school events, and games that she had somehow managed to pack into her schedule. 

“All this while fumbling my way trying to direct traffic on the Avenue,” she added, a reference to Headmaster Emeritus Michael Contompasis’s decision during his tenure to direct traffic outside of the school on Avenue Louis Pasteur and greet students and families every morning.

Skerritt began her career in the Boston school system, where she taught for 11 years. Her last assignment before moving to Boston was as the deputy chief of leadership development for the public schools in the District of Columbia Public Schools.

Her appointment was announced last March following a widespread search to replace Dr. Lynne Mooney Teta, who announced her resignation as headmaster in June 2016 after nine years of leading the exam school.

Briefly referencing Mooney Teta, Skerritt said, “I have truly appreciated our collegial relationship over the past decade, and having the opportunity to see so many exciting new programs that have been developed over the past ten years. I look forward to the continued collaboration to come.”

In her address, Skerritt took up the issue of the competitive and controversial exam that students in the city have to take to gain admission to the exam schools, which include not only BLS, but also Boston Latin Academy and the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science. 

“I still remember my nervousness as a student the morning of the Latin School test, knowing how consequential it was that I secure a seat,” she said. “The shared experience of preparation for that moment along with the competition of earning one’s place at BLS is important and key to our identity as a school.”

She also acknowledged the criticism that the exam is a barrier for many city students, making perhaps the most elite school inaccessible to many of them.

[Correction: An earlier version of this article stated incorrect figures for the latest class of seventh graders invited to attend BLS. The breakdown is 67.3 percent of invited students were from public schools, including BPS (60 percent), charter (6 percent) and METCO (1 percent). The remaining 32.7 percent of invited students were sourced from parochial, independent or other private schools.]

“We’re aware that there are brilliant young people in the city that for reasons ranging from lack of sufficient coverage on test topics at their elementary schools to a lack of information about the exam schools in general to the potential language barrier between school and home,” said Skerritt, adding “that there are young people who do not have the opportunity to compete, but would thrive at BLS if given the chance.”

Staying with the issue, she said, “I’ve heard some express fear that we may be migrating away from BLS as a meritocracy. Making sure that there is equity around access is, in fact, the opposite. A more level playing field makes for a tougher and richer contest.”

Once infamous for its high attrition numbers, Latin School now maintains higher retention rates, well above 90 percent, Skerritt said.

“Does our low attrition rate mean that we have lowered our standards?” she asked. “It does not,” she answered. It means that we raised them. It means we have to be more innovative and creative to ensure that our mission is realized for all students who gain admission to BLS,” Skerritt said.

Skerritt did not explicitly address the “Black and BLS” campaign, which has sparked both school-wide and city-wide conversations regarding race and inequalities at the school, choosing instead to focus on her own experience. “I’ve maintained that one of the strategies to ensure that every student is successful is to acknowledge race as a critical factor in the educational and overall experiences for students of color,” said the first person of color to serve as headmaster in the school’s 382-year-history.

“It was drilled into my head by my parents growing up, as I’m sure it was for many individuals in this room from minority communities, that I had to be twice as good in order to be seen. Not to be seen as equal, just to be seen,” she said, before pausing for a moment.

“For anyone who thinks that’s a ridiculous notion, please visit the Globe article announcing my appointment and read the comments. The most offensive ones have been removed by the editors, but there are still quite a few gems in there, including the short but poignant ‘her picture says it all,’ which I inferred to mean that this position was not something that I had earned but something I was handed.”

Skerritt added: “Acknowledging our differences does not in any way take away from the fact that we do play for the same team. … the constant feeling of having to battle back from people’s low expectations is exhausting, especially when there is no one to process it with you or even acknowledge it. We must continue to set a sky-high bar for our scholars and then we have to love the heck out of them as they work to meet our lofty expectations.”

After the headmaster finished her address, the gathering supplied the punctuation: a standing ovation.