Committee resignations distract from real trouble in BPS schools

Last fall, the Boston School Committee was preparing to vote for a new policy that for the first time would give fairer access to students of color seeking to get into the city’s three exam schools. For a generation, Blacks and Latinos have seen few seats, despite making up a large majority of students at the Boston Public Schools.

The hearing before the vote featured passionate statements in favor of the new policy – which takes into account ZIP codes — and strong statements against it from white parents, especially from West Roxbury, and from some Asian parents who wanted to preserve the system, which called for an entrance exam, that was working fine for them. The new policy is temporary, due to the pandemic, and a task force is considering permanent next steps.

During last fall’s hearing, School Committee members Lorna Rivera and Alexandra Oliver-Dávila had this exchange in texts on their cell phones:
“Best school committee meeting ever,” Oliver-Dávila wrote to Rivera. “I’m trying not to cry.” Rivera texted back: “Wait until the white racists start yelling at us.” Oliver Dávila responded: “Whatever. They’re delusional,” later adding, “I hate WR,” a reference to West Roxbury. “Sick of Westie whites,” Rivera replied. “Me, too. I really feel like saying that,” answered Oliver-Dávila.

Clearly, someone who does not want the admissions policy changed “dropped a dime” on these text conversations, which were published in the Boston Globe.

One of my children attended Boston Latin, and she used to say, “It’s a Westy school,” meaning many BLS students were from West Roxbury.

I have tried working with others since the early 2000s to get the exam schools’ admissions policy changed, because the grading system for admissions favored parochial and private school students. A teacher who once taught at Boston Latin and now serves as a BPS principal told me that one year all the applicants from Holy Name, a parochial school in West Roxbury, had A’s and were admitted. She said that she had taught them all and that some were A students but certainly not all of them.

Students applying to Boston’s exam schools have been taking an entrance test more often used in private and parochial schools than the MCAS test that BPS students take. It is both baffling and angering that for so long we disadvantaged Boston’s public school students in this admissions process.

There’s a lot at stake for parents in this matter. Some parents feel that if their child doesn’t get into an exam school, they either have to pay tens of thousands for private school or move out of Boston. White parents generally have higher incomes than Black and Latino parents and so have likely been more able to pay for test prep courses for their children. I admit that I paid a few hundred dollars to enroll my daughter in a test prep program back then. We know that’s not fair. 

The history of this issue goes back to the 1970s, when a federal judge ordered that one-third of the seats in the exam schools go to Black and Latino students. But 20 years later, a white parent challenged this in a higher court and won. The national NAACP advised against an appeal of that ruling because with a conservative Supreme Court, the fallout might have led to the undoing of other rulings in favor of minority plaintiffs.

Ultimately, the combined number of Black and Latino students at Boston Latin fell below 20 percent in a system where they make up 70 percent of the students.

I have met Alexandra Oliver-Dávila and for more than 20 years, she has run a very respected youth agency in Mission Hill called Sociedad Latina. She grew up in West Roxbury and she tells of experiencing bullying, spitting, and racial epithets in her home neighborhood. It’s so sad that she has to resign because of the release of a text message. 

She has said she regretted the texts, calling them inappropriate, but added, “I am not ashamed of the feelings from history that made me write those words. My lived experience of growing up fearing people from certain neighborhoods, the neighborhood I lived in, is real and is what helped shape who I am today.”

My gosh, how many of us have said things in private that we would never say in public? Will someone invent something to read our minds and then every mean thing in our thoughts will be out there?

That said, where do we go from here? The School Committee, Mayor Janey, and the Boston School Department must implement a policy that calls for the exam schools to admit a more diverse set of students to the exam schools and ensure that those students have strong academic records. There’s nothing stopping us from having an admissions policy giving priority to the top BPS students or allowing equal numbers to get in from each ZIP code in the city.

We need big improvements in most of Boston’s public schools, rather than a fight over hundreds of seats in the three Boston exam schools. But decisions on who gets to go to those three are being made every year and affecting life chances for thousands of students. We can’t wait until most of the city’s schools will be very good ones. Let’s not go back in time.

Lew Finfer is a Dorchester resident.