School Committee Approves New, One-Year Exam School Admissions Process

In a meeting stretching well past midnight, the Boston School Committee voted 7-0 on Thursday morning, Oct. 22, in the wee hours for a plan that would – for one year at least – scrap the exam school test and institute a new way of apportioning seats and choice for 80 percent of the seats at the City’s three exam schools.

The plan also awards seats citywide to the top 20 percent of students by Grade Point Average (GPA) right off the bat not using geography, though the remaining 80 percent fall into the new zip code and income-based process.

For Charlestown families, the plan will likely mean less access to seats at the City’s three grade 7-12 public Exam Schools, as the plan shifts seats to lower-income neighborhoods with large numbers of children and away from higher-income neighborhoods like Charlestown that have a low school-age population.

Hundreds spoke on the plan at the online, Oct. 21, School Committee meeting Wednesday – some for and some against – in the hours and hours of testimony and discussion. The plan was laid out earlier this month, and due to COVID-19, suspends the use of the exam school test this fall for 6th, 8th and some 9th graders looking for entrance into Boston Latin School (BLS), Boston Latin Academy (BLA) and John D. O’Bryant High School. Suspending the test is a huge development for parents in the Town, but the second piece of the plan – and one that will affect Charlestown the most – is that the plan will make seats available by zip code based on school-age population from the US Census. In Charlestown, the school-age population is low, at 3 percent, and the percentages of seats now by Charlestown students outsizes that number.

Now comes the nitty gritty in the next several weeks of figuring just how many of the 80 percent of 02129-based seats there will be. Those numbers haven’t been revealed yet by the Boston Public Schools (BPS). The Patriot-Bridge has put in a request for those numbers to BPS, but by press time they hadn’t been received. Last week, BPS provided the most recent percentages of students from each Boston zip code, including Charlestown, to the paper. It showed that the Town has more total 7-12 seats in BLS (5.2 percent) than school-age population, but that’s just a small piece of the giant puzzle that makes up an invitation to join the school.

Late last week, the newspaper received data from BPS on invitations by school and neighborhood.

According to those numbers, there were 107 applicants for an Exam School seat for the current school year in Charlestown, and 56 received invitations to attend one of the three schools. That was 5.5 percent of the total invitations citywide, keeping in mind Charlestown has 3 percent school-age population. Some 34 invitations were to BLS (7 percent of the total invites), 15 to BLA (4.5 percent of the total invites), and 7 to O’Bryant (3.4 percent of the total invites).

The Warren Prescott School received 28 of the invites, and there were 58 invites coming out of the Eliot K-8 School in the North End, which serves Charlestown. The Harvard Kent did not have a sixth grade until this year, so no students there were eligible to apply for an Exam School.

There is no certainty now just what the new system for this year will mean for the class entering the three schools from Charlestown, but it certainly does mean a reduction of seats and more competition within the neighborhood students for those zip code based seats as determined by a ranked list of GPAs from last fall and winter.

Some have postulated it could mean a reduction of approximately 40 percent of the total seats in the Town. One reader pointed to a blog published by the Shah Foundation and written by Ross Wilson – a form BPS staffer, that postulated a total of 21.6 seats going to Charlestown under the formula. Rounding down to 21, that would mean a loss of 35 seats in the Town for the coming year – though it cannot be discounted that some seats might come to the Town from the first 20 percent set aside for the highest achievers.

Nothing, however, is certain until BPS reveals its official numbers.

The new plan had wide-spread support from City leaders at the Oct. 21 meeting, and from education reform organizations and social justice organizations – a measure of support that has been solidified well before COVID-19 when the Exam School Admissions Working Group was formed over a year ago to devise a more equitable way to admit students to the three schools.

The Working Group’s plan also received major support from Civil Rights and racial justice organizations in the city, 13 of which signed on to a letter Oct. 21 that endorsed the plan eventually voted in by the Committee.

“Amidst these trying times, the exam school admissions proposal is a sensible and equitable way to recognize our highest performing students,” read a portion of the letter. “For the last 20 years, invitations to Boston’s exam schools have been awarded based on a combination of students’ _grades and performance on a test. With coronavirus infection rates increasing and few students allowed to return to schools, now is simply not the time to administer an in-person examination to thousands of students. Nor would an examination be an accurate measure of a student’s worth given the trauma caused by the pandemic.”

Numerous parents, however, spoke against the plan – which uses Grade Point Average (GPA), zip code, area median income by zip code – to determine available seats and the order of selection (lower income zip code students would have first pick of the schools and higher income zip codes the last pick in a 10-round selection process for those invited). Families around the city often employ tutors years in advance at a great expense to prepare for the material on the exam school test, most of which is not covered in the regular BPS curriculum. Those parents’ investment and preparations are now null and void, many said.

Supt. Brenda Cassellius and Mayor Martin Walsh favored the plan, along with all members of the School Committee.

“It would not be fair or just to ask a child to come to compete on an exam whose life has been turned upside down due to the parents losing their home, losing their jobs, or close family members losing their life,” said the mayor in the online meeting.

The approved plan has a caveat of just being for this year due to the inequities that have surfaced in the student population due to COVID-19. However, the Working Group continues its inquiry into the process and some aspects of this plan will likely endure in a future, permanent recommendation, members have told the newspaper in the past. The second piece of the plan is the order in which students get to pick their school invitation, and Charlestown is likely to see a difference there as that process is done according to median income per zip code. The lowest income picks first, and the highest last. Charlestown has the third highest Median Household Income in Boston at $118,226

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