Exam school admissions are delayed by lawsuit

Letters of acceptance to Boston’s three exam schools —Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science— have been delayed after a group of parents filed a lawsuit last week claiming that the school district’s current admission process is discriminatory.

This year’s admissions plan, approved by the School Committee last October, didn’t include the traditional entrance exam, with the panel citing the dangers of testing during the Covid-19 crisis. Under the provisional plan, 20 percent of available seats were to be allocated to students with the city’s top grades. The remaining 80 percent were to be admitted to the schools based on their GPA ranking within their home ZIP code, with eligible students from the lowest-income ZIP codes given first choice.

In their court filing, the Boston Parent Coalition for Academic Excellence Corp is seeking injunctions that would bar Boston Public Schools (BPS) from using the admissions system this year and in the future. The group is demanding that a judge declare the policy unconstitutional because it doesn’t treat everybody fairly and because it discriminates against whites and Asian-Americans. The suit is specifically on behalf of 14 families - 10 of them from West Roxbury.

A representative from the group— which is led by Benato Cui— declined the Reporter’s request for comment and refused to identify any members of the group. 

A Facebook page maintained by coalition members calls the current admission process “harmful and inequitable to all of Boston’s children, particularly Asian students who make up a greater share of the student body at the exam schools than the City as a whole.”

Kay Hodge, a lawyer for BPS, said during a preliminary injunction hearing on March 3 that invitation letters could be delayed until at least mid-April because of the lawsuit.

Their suit prompted fierce push-back from advocates, including the NAACP Boston Branch, which made a motion for an intervention that was granted by US District Court Judge William Young on March 3. The motion was also supported by the Greater Boston Latino Network, the Asian Pacific Islanders Civic Action Network, the Asian American Resource Workshop, and three families of color. 

“Intervention is critical to provide the full context of why policies like this one are necessary in Boston,” said Doreen Rachal, an attorney from Sidley Austin LLP, which is representing the intervenors. “The plaintiff has presented a skewed portrait of admissions in Boston, one that ignores the long history of disinvestment and discrimination against communities of color. Our perspective, as membership organizations representing these very communities, is therefore critical.” 

Sidley Austin LLP, Lawyers for Civil Rights, and Greater Boston Legal Services are serving as counsel to the organizations and families.  

“History has shown us that when we begin to make progress toward our shared values, headwinds will try to come against us,” said Tanisha M.

Sullivan, president of the NAACP Boston Branch.  “By joining forces to file this motion, we hope to send a clear message that we are resolute in our determination to fight for the promise of this city to provide all children, in every neighborhood, from every socio-economic background, with equitable access to our public schools. We will not be deterred in our fight for justice.”  

A study included in BPS’s plan found that 72.4 percent of all students districtwide were Black or Latino in the last school year, compared to just 21 percent at Boston Latin School. Similar gaps — especially wide at BLS — appear among the share of students classed as “economically disadvantaged.”

Said Lauren Sampson, an attorney at Lawyers for Civil Rights: 

“We must abandon any idea that so-called ‘objective measures,’ like GPAs or standardized test scores, are effectively identifying academically excellent students.

“As multiple studies have shown, BPS has continually employed admissions criteria that exclude high-achieving Black, Latinx, and other underrepresented students who would thrive in the rigorous environment of a highly selective public school.”

The plan, developed by BPS Superintendent Brenda Cassellius and a working group commissioned by the district, drew both support and a backlash last year. Some were in favor of nixing the district’s exam criteria altogether, saying that it has contributed to exclusion and discrimination against Black, Latinx, low-income, and other underrepresented students. 

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