At Boston Latin, the number of Black and Latino students have decreased in percentage relative to the rest of the Boston public school communities. WGBH News' Phillip Martin sat down with Boston Schools Superintendent Dr. Tommy Change to discuss the racial gap at Boston's premier public school. Listen to the full interview below. Editor's note: This interview took place before Wednesday's announcement by U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz that the Civil Rights Unit of the Boston office will launch an independent investigation of alleged civil rights violations at Boston Latin.
PHILLIP MARTIN: We’re heard some individuals who’ve talked about, in response to allegations of racial animus at Boston Latin, the nation’s first and premier school, that perhaps they should take this to a federal level. Could that be a turn to your advantage, turning this into a federal issue?
DR. TOMMY CHANG: I would say first that, if the federal government does investigate this issue at Boston Latin, it is our obligation to fully cooperate with the federal government. And in instances where the federal government works in collaboration with local leadership, you have far more powerful outcomes for kids, because you have the cover of the federal government, and you have the context of the local leadership. And ultimately we want policy recommendations that make sense, that are going to be effective, and lead to results. So we will cooperate if there is an investigation.
Have you thought about what those policy prescriptions might be?
I think that the collective thinking of the federal government, which has a context of locales across the country working in collaboration with some of our current thinking, I think will absolutely be powerful, yes. We have done some thinking around this, we believe there are possibilities of expanding and broadening the demographic pool in which we are recruiting and accepting students into Boston Latin.
Let’s talk about that for a second. Since 1995, with the McLaughlin lawsuit hovering over the school committee, the school department, hovering over Boston Latin’s legacy, how has that impacted the number of American American, Latino, and other students coming to Boston Latin?
So what the data shows us is that African American and or Black students, as well as Latino students, have decreased in percentage relative to the rest of the Boston public school’s community, at Boston Latin. So there are fewer Black and Latino students going to Boston Latin, while white and Asian student in terms of percentage have increased.
And how do you think the McLaughlin, if you could first of all elaborate on McLaughlin, how do you think that has impacted that statistical reality you just described?
That lawsuit hoped to create more equality in terms of how students entered into the school. While the intent of that lawsuit was to create more equality in terms of who entered into Boston Latin, there have been inequitable results because of it. For example, number of Black and Latino students at the school has decreased, while the number of Asian and white students has increased. And this comes at a time where Black and Latino students, in Boston public schools as a whole, has increased.
So how does that impact what you were hoping to accomplish?
So, the impetus for that lawsuit was that particular case, but I think our ultimate goal here is to have a school that is reflective of the community of Boston. And what has been demonstrated over the last 20 years is that the data is showing that it’s going in the wrong direction. There is actually an increase in the opportunity gap for Black and Latino students in the city to enter Boston Latin.
Are there any prescriptions for balancing that, if you will, based on testing and based on a private/public school preparation ratio.
So our commitment is, over the next 6 to 9 months, to actually study this issue in-depth. There will be a working group that will be created to look at this issue and to make some recommendations, or as you said, prescriptions. It will be very difficult and unfair right now to say what those prescriptions may be, but my belief is that there is not one silver bullet here— we’re going to have to do many things.
Strategically, how do you basically create a more equitable classroom given the type of testing structures that you have right now; including testing structures that start in the third grade, I understand.
It is our goal to make sure there are no opportunity gaps for kids, especially our kids who are most vulnerable. And when you start creating structures in the system that start tracking kids at the early grades, that is a problem. So for example, in Boston public schools, we have classrooms throughout the city that are identified as ‘advanced work’ classes. Only 10 percent of 4th through 6th graders qualify for those classrooms through an exam that they take in 3rd grade. We want to make sure that we expand those opportunities for the most rigorous classes, and the most enrichment to all kids. That was the work of the first 100 days, looking at how to expand AWC, and how do we expand other programs that allow a more diverse group of students to start taking rigorous coursework at 4th grade, then 5th grade, then 6th grade.
If part of the policy problem in the perception? As some perceive it, that private schools have a leg-up in terms of their students being admitted into Boston Latin, even private schools from the suburbs— how do you compete with that, policy-wise and in this real world?
I have walked 4th through 6th grade classrooms throughout the city. And in classrooms where there is rigorous instruction, when there is enrichment for kids, those are classrooms and schools that I would put my children in. So, I think our schools are doing an amazing job when there is actually quality instruction, and when there is rigor, and when there is enrichment.
I just want to revisit McLaughlin again. The pressures that were put on at that time were enormous— i’ve gone back and looked at some of the articles — are you concerned about a white parrot? For example, if you start to see more and more African American and Latino students coming into the school system, are you concerned that you might face another possible lawsuit? Or anger from a white parent who says, “well that is an example of discrimination by not considering all of these factors, including the fact that my daughter, my son have a transcendent grade-point average.”
I think it is important to judge the qualifications of youth on multiple factors. So, to just judge a child based on a test or on GPA is not enough, and there are other factors that need to be explored.
What are those other factors?
We could judge, “how well does this student present through an interview?” We should be judging the quality of their work, not by just a GPA, but potentially looking at work samples. We should judge their community service, their ability to bring a different perspective to a conversation. All those are important factors to look at, and these are things that we need to begin thinking about in terms of “how do we believe a student is qualified for the oldest school in America?”
We have been focused for weeks on an incident at Boston Latin raised by African American students and other students, described as an incident of racism. People have come together since then, some of the students have responded positively to what the headmaster has proposed, but a number of African-American leaders are not happy with the outcome; they want to take the incident to the federal government. How do you relate this episode, this incident, to the larger picture of what’s happening at Boston Latin?
The incidents of racism are real, and they need to be dealt with. The headmaster has publicly apologized for not handling incidents properly, and she wants to do better, and it’s our job to support her. That being said, there are broader issues that need to be discussed. We need to look across the board: where are there issues of race concerns, and how do we deal with them? How do we do so in a very transparent way, and how do we engage parents, students, teachers, administrators, and the community in broad conversations? This is an opportunity to learn and grow. We cannot stop the conversation now, we must continue the conversation.
During this conversation, as this has taken place, Carmen Ortiz’s office announced the formation of a new full-time Civil Rights division. How can that Civil Rights division possibly help the efforts of the Boston School Department?
I have not been contacted by the Department of Justice, and if I am contacted, we’re fully willing to cooperate, it is our job to do so. We have worked with the Department of Justice before. Since I started as a superintendent in Boston public schools, we have fully cooperated with the Department of Justice as well as the US Office of Civil Rights to really look at issues of English learners across this city. So we have demonstrated that we are willing to collaborate, and we will.
Is there anything you would like to add that I haven’t asked?
I would say that this is actually an opportunity in the city, to have this conversation at a very deep and broad level. It was because of two students who brought these issues up that initiated all this. That means we must continue bringing students and their voices to this conversation, and I think over the last few weeks that voice has been lost, and I think it’s important to bring their voice back into all of it.
Doctor Chang, thank you very much.