Boston Latin celebrated its 381st anniversary this past weekend. Many will be looking back to the time they attended BLS, one of America’s most prestigious public schools and all will likely be talking the racial crisis now buffeting Latin.  The US attorney’s office is currently investigating BLS for possible civil rights violations and current and former students are asking what happens next.

The sounds of the past streak by the ears of Peter Kelly whenever he walks the halls of Boston Latin. “I graduated in 1983 and this place is at once completely familiar and radically different.  It certainly smells the same, I can tell you that, and looks largely the same.”

Kelly is the full time head of the Boston Latin School Association. He says so much about the present is a continuation of BLS’s centuries old traditions, especially in the caliber of students admitted here; students like 10th grader, Gabriel Vives: 

“I just did my best and I got in. Most of my friends said they didn't want to come here because they heard it was too hard."

And students like 11th grader Crystal Williams Cleef:  

“Coming here, it's a college preparatory school.  We take Latin.   No one takes Latin.   So all our classes are honors, so I feel like we're really pushed.”   

Peter Kelly says these students remind him of his days here at BLS, but he also laments:  

“We now have been processing this for 3 months and we understand and say to ourselves ‘how did we not see this happening?’” 

And what is happening is that there are fewer Latino students like Gabriel and even fewer Black students like Crystal AT Boston Latin these days; a fact that was spotlighted in January when two black students testified before the Boston School Committee alleging an atmosphere of racial harassment; allegations deemed so significant that US Attorney Carmen Ortiz’s office has stepped in to investigate possible civil rights violations.

“We will conduct a thorough investigation and we will pursue the facts wherever they lead us.”

Even as the city’s minority population has grown Black student enrollment at Latin has dropped 60 percent since 1995.  That’s when Boston attorney Michael McLaughlin filed suit to force the Boston School Committee to admit his daughter based strictly on test scores, and to invalidate a quota system that contributed to a 35 percent Black and Latino student body.   Currently almost half of Latin students are white;  thirty percent Asian; twelve percent Latino, and nine percent are African American.  

“We should turn this into a positive and figure out how we can get those numbers back up to where they were some years ago at over 35 percent.”

Michael Curry heads the Boston NAACP—one of the groups that called for the current federal investigation of Boston Latin.  

“Our future doctors and lawyers and Engineers who are not getting access to that school should be a concern for all of us in this city because that's talent that’s being left on the table.”

Boston School Superintendent Tommy Chang is greatly concerned. He says part of the answer to insuring that Latin’s future reflects the city’s ethnic/racial pluralism--is to prepare more students to take the rigorous Entrance Exam by getting them into what is called advanced work classes.   

“Only 10 percent of 4th through 6th graders qualify for those classrooms through an exam that they take in third grade.  We want to make sure that we expand those opportunities for the most rigorous classes and the most enrichment to all kids.”

Boston Latin School
Phillip Martin GBH News

Celdra Allen, the mother of a black student at Latin knows full well the value of early test preparation. “Well we were fortunate enough that when he was in fourth grade he got into the advanced work program and most of the kids who go through that program they do get into an exam school.”

I asked Allen, how well did her son navigate the test to get into Latin?    

“He said it was easy and he did very well. He scored in the top 10 percentile.”

Did his entry, as some have argued, have anything to do with quotas.    

“No, if at the kids have the opportunity, then they'll excel.”

But Latin alumni association’s Peter Kelly says “unfortunately” Boston school officials a long time ago dropped the ball on equitable test preparation.

“There were programs and professional staff within the BPS that were charged with addressing promotion of exam school education, which the district ceased to fund at some point in the last several years.”   

Many of the students admitted to Latin, like Crystal Williams Cleef come from parochial schools:  

“I mean in my school I was the only African-American.   I was at St. Mary's in Brookline. I just feel that if we have the resources then it's a lot more likely to get in.  It depends on your earlier education.”

And civil right leaders say this is one of biggest problems.  A disproportionate number of Latin students come from either private schools or a handful of the city’s 50 elementary schools.  Rahsaan D. Hall is the Director of the Massachusetts ACLU’s Racial Justice Program. He says expanding the number of feeder schools to Latin could lead to greater equity without risking law suits from people opposed to affirmative action. 

“Why not set aside seats for the kids, not by race but either by zip code or by feeder School within the district that's another way to get to that diversity Right now there's a lot of students that go to private preparatory schools then test in back into the district.”

Walking the empty hallway of Boston Latin on the eve of its reunion, Peter Kelly says if this school is going to continue to succeed for another 381 years it will have to face the realities of Boston’s changing face.

“Anybody who cares about this District and diversity generally should be paying attention and should be grateful for the opportunity we have to rectify.”