Exam School seat access in JP likely to decline at both Latin schools

In a meeting stretching well past midnight, the Boston School Committee voted 7-0 on Thursday morning 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, with the remaining 80 percent falling into the new zip code and income-based process.

For Jamaica Plain families, the plan will likely mean less access to exam school seats at two of the three public exam schools as the plan looks to be more equitable in offering seats to lower-income neighborhoods with large numbers of children and away from higher-income neighborhoods like JP that have a low school-age population.

Hundreds spoke on the plan at the online 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. The second piece of the plan – and one that will affect Jamaica Plain the most – is that the plan will make seats available by zip code based on school-age population from the US Census. In JP, the school-age population is low, and the percentages of seats by JP students outsizes that number – meaning that the neighborhood stands to lose availability to exam school seats this coming year.

The plan had wide-spread support from City leaders, 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 o f 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 accepted). 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 Gazette in the past.

While some neighborhoods will gain access to many more seats in the exam schools this coming year, JP will stand to lose access to seats at BLS and BLA, which likely gaining seats to O’Bryant.

One of the key aspects of the approved plan is to allot seats this year by zip code according to the percentage of the school-age population. That would mean the percentage of available seats to JP students would be at around 5.1 percent, as the latest Census data shows the Town has a school-age population of 5.1 percent.

In looking at data for exam school enrollment provided to the Gazette by BPS, JP students disproportionately occupy seats in BLS and BLA above their school-age population. BLS has a JP population of 7.7 percent – 2.6 percent above what would be allotted by the new zip code process. At BLA, JP students occupy 6.8 percent of the seats – so 1.7 percent higher than the school-age population. In total at both Latin Schools, JP would stand to lose 4.3 percent of the seats currently occupied by JP students in this year’s enrollment figures.

That isn’t true, however, of O’Bryant, and JP students would gain access to seats there. JP students make up 3.1 percent of the enrollment at O’Bryant, and so the neighborhood would gain 2 percent more seats than currently held.

JP, however, is by no means the neighborhood most affected either way by the decision.

In fact, the neighborhood with the biggest losses would be West Roxbury, which would lose large amounts of seats to the proposed program.

West Roxbury has 4.8 percent school-age population, but has 18.9 percent of the seats in BLS, and 9.1 percent of the seats in BLA. They register below the threshold at O’Bryant, where they have 3 percent. Under the proposal, West Roxbury students would lose access to 14.1 percent of its current allotment of seats at BLS.

Some parts of Dorchester would benefit, but not as much as has been cited anecdotally, according to the BPS statistics. For the Codman Square (02124) area of Dorchester, there is a school-age population of 13 percent – the largest in the city. Only 8 percent of children there go to BLS, so there would be a gain of seats for that school. However, 12.3 percent go to BLA, and 14.8 percent go to O’Bryant. So, there would be a minimal gain of seats there to BLA and a loss of seats there to O’Bryant.

The largest gains tend to be in neighborhoods like East Boston.

There is a 9 percent school-age population in Eastie, but the neighborhood is largely underrepresented in the exam schools. 

At BLS, Eastie students make up only 4.8 percent of the enrollment, and only 6.1 percent at BLA. At O’Bryant, they come closer at 8.2 percent, but still fall below the school-age population. Eastie, under the plan, would gain seats in all three exam schools.

The second piece of the plan is the order in which students get to pick their school invitation, and Jamaica Plain is likely to see a difference there as that process is down according to median income per zip code. The lowest income picks first each round, and the highest last. Jamaica Plain has the 11th highest median income by zip code in the City, just behind South Boston and parts of the Back Bay, at $90,813 per year.

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