CCE staff and partner reflections on our collaborative work to create schools where learning is engaging and rewarding, and every student is set up for success.
Welcoming Boston Latin School's Newest Class with Care and Dignity
As the city of Boston begins to stagger out of the pandemic, questions concerning equity and the redistribution of opportunities weigh heavily on many minds. Already a district riddled with inequity, administrators, teachers, and parents watched as the 2020-2021 school year exacerbated physical and mental strains on BPS students, particularly those who are low-income, as well as the widespread loss of jobs, police and social brutality, racial injustice, and increased rates of depression due to isolation. During this period, the BPS Exam School Task Force was assembled, working tirelessly to create a plan to admit more diverse classes of students.. While the Exam School Task Force came to a conclusion on admissions, the healing from the tension brought because of this issue is just beginning. Despite the continued animosity from various individuals, students admitted under the zip-code-based system will join their peers at their new schools in September. Yet the question remains: what can be done to assist these students as they transition into new environments?
As a recent Black alum of Boston Latin School, I do not take this query lightly. My feelings on my alma mater are intricate and complicated. I can easily recall moments where I’ve experienced interpersonal and institutionalized racism, as well as times where I’ve felt supported and uplifted by my school community. I, like others, have had to confront individuals about their bigotry in the classrooms, in the hallways, wherever. It is a thankless task, and quite often, a lonely one. I do not want these new students to have to navigate these nuances, or carry this burden. They should not have to trade in their dignity for opportunities.
During the course of my Seevak fellowship this summer, I conducted research with the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment (MCIEA), in order to figure out the answers to this question concerning how to best educate the exam schools’ newest students. When asked how they thought BLS could provide a welcoming environment to the incoming class, a student replied: ‘‘Boston Latin should show an understanding that people are coming with different learning styles, and when teaching, teach in a way that accommodates all.’’ This could be done by offering various resources to approach a lesson at different angles, and shifting the school’s emphasis from Ivy League outcomes to individuals’ wellbeing. By doing this, BLS proves its dedication to all of its students. Adjusting to the new students allows them to know that they are valuable members of the community, and tells the more seasoned students that their school is committed to accessibility.
As students return to the building this fall, BLS has several choices it can make in order to encourage mental health prioritization. MCIEA data from the most recent available school year (2018-2019), suggest concern for student socio-emotional health at BLS. For example, when asked to rate their stress level on a typical day at school, three in four students (or 952 out of 1256 total respondents) reported that they were either “quite stressed” or “extremely stressed.” When I interviewed individuals about the nature of the school’s learning environment, the vast majority of student participants stated that they saw BLS as a highly competitive environment, as opposed to moderately or somewhat competitive. The reasoning behind this point of view ranged from the fact that Boston Latin has an entrance exam simply to gain access, to the pervasive feeling that asking questions might expose one’s vulnerability as being seen as less knowledgeable. For students with learning disabilities, lack of prior knowledge in certain areas, scholars who have a traditionally marginalized identity, and students in general, having the comfort to risk making a mistake publicly is invaluable to their success. In order to combat this issue, BLS could mandate all teachers to share the contact information of the school’s mental health and special education faculty members and resources in their beginning of the year presentations. This would normalize needing help, something that many students have been conditioned to associate with shame. By having a more proactive approach, student wellbeing and performance issues could be resolved more quickly, producing a happier and healthier environment.
In addition to acknowledging the diversity in which students learn, Boston Latin School needs to accept the vastness of the perspectives of the world. The Eurocentric nature of the school is highly expansive and evident. The insistence of Whiteness everywhere, even in narratives that supposedly center voices of color, is abhorrent. Several racial and other marginalized groups do not experience any representation in the English or history curricula at all (except for summer reading), but an entire year is allotted to British literature, culminating in the junior year research paper. (Although BLS officially defines British literature as ‘‘all worldwide literature emerging from the British tradition,’’ the canon naturally leans Anglo-Saxon--again, except for summer reading.) Required book selections on culture and identity contain racial epithets, trauma-based plotlines, and White saviorism. While there are mentions of people such as Toussaint Louverture, leader of the Haitian rebellion, and cultural moments like the popularity of zoot suits, the time spent on this material is significantly less. Even though 100% of student participants thought that Boston Latin’s Coalition of Culture Clubs (CCC) does a great job in educating the student population, it was noted in my interviews that BLS can’t create equitable structural change without the assistance of a revamped curriculum.
Feeling frustrated with this perpetual symbolic annihilation, I co-founded the Boston branch of Diversify Our Narrative, a national organization that advocates for more inclusive English reading. During one of our school’s periodic community service fairs, DON Boston was able to host a virtual community service hour to allow students to create their ideas for more diverse lesson plans. Using a similar model, BLS can consult its own students in order to design structural change. Every 5-10 years, Boston Latin can have an independent examiner conduct research on students’ assessment of curricular diversity, specifically highlighting the opinions of students of color. If a significant number of students find issues with the inclusivity of the English and history non-AP courses, such as 30% or above of students, then the school should allow an opportunity for students to submit revised versions of those lessons. These revisions would then be implemented.
Boston Latin School cannot disrupt its status quo of racism, classism, and ableism on its own. It needs its newest students in order to change its own barometer on its so-called progressiveness. By welcoming the new students and their voices in their entirety, Boston Latin gives itself a golden opportunity to address its institutional biases from the inside out.