Boston parents who want their kids to go to college often set their sights on the city’s prestigious exam schools, but a public high school in Hyde Park has been quietly sending graduates to college at nearly the same rate.
Ninety percent of New Mission High School’s graduating seniors this year plan to attend college. They're heading to Dartmouth, Boston College, Bates College and Morehouse College, among others. The majority of students are black or Latino, about half are poor, and a third learned English as a second language. Among Boston Public Schools, only exam schools have higher college-going rates. A national education association last year recognized the school for “tenaciously changing the life trajectories of its students.”
The school wants to do even better. The goal is for every student to take at least one Advanced Placement, or AP, course by the time they graduate.
“The core of the instruction they receive is critical,” Headmaster Naia Wilson said. “They have to get the feel for the rigor before they step into a college campus because if they haven’t experienced that, we're setting them up for failure.”
Wilson left a career as an engineer to become an educator. She’s built much of the school around math because engineering jobs are lucrative. Students have to take four years of math. Next fall, seniors will only have three options: AP Calculus, Calculus or AP Statistics. In other words, nothing easy.
Jaden Nichols, 16, was placed in the lowest level math class when he entered New Mission as a freshman. Ironically, the class is designated as “College Prep.” He quickly realized he knew everything his teacher was asking him to do. He’d finish his work early and then start talking.
“It happened constantly,” he said. Eventually, his teacher figured out he needed a challenge, and Jaden campaigned to get into honors-level math.
He switched after the first semester of freshman year. Next year, he’ll be a junior, and plans to take three AP classes because he’s learned those classes could help boost his grade point average.
How did Jaden end up in “College Prep Math” in the first place?
“Probably because maybe I saw a C or a couple of Cs here and there,” New Mission's guidance counselor, Valduvino Goncalves said, referring to Jaden’s middle school transcript. “And I was like, okay, this is a 'college prep' kid.”
Goncalves said he regrets that decision, but noted that he’s in a tough position since part of his job is to assign kids he’s never met before.
That’s why the school is making it easier for kids to take the classes they want. Students don’t need teacher recommendations or approval to take an AP or honors class. They just have to sit through a sample class so they and their parents know what the course requires.
“Because who am I to tell a student you can’t be in honors or AP?” Goncalves said. “I try to be very careful there, because it’s their life, right?”
This strategy might not work everywhere, Goncalves and Wilson admit. For one thing, the school is small. Students have to apply to get in. They don’t have to pass an exam like the one for Boston Latin School, but they do have to write an essay.
Teachers at the school were handpicked because they believe in the mission of breaking down barriers for kids of color. They also had to be willing to work a lot, even without overtime, Wilson said, to help students meet the high expectations.
The school has recently scaled up. New Mission, which started as a high school, added seventh and eighth grades last year. Those additions made its structure exactly the same as Boston Latin's.
Correction: This story originally misidentified the national organization that recognized the school and has since been updated.
Our coverage of K through 12 education is made possible with support from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.