Race to the Top

America’s oldest public school, a long-standing paragon of diversity, carries on as affirmative action wanes.

Image: Nicholas Nixon

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The building has “Public Latin School” carved in stone above the front door. The halls are awash with a roiling, rising tide of 12- to 18-year-olds; their faces are open, curious, a melange of colors and races. Many would check the “other” box on a census questionnaire. The 2,300 city kids are chatting, laughing, and flirting — a sartorially challenged crowd that favors the unisex bagginess of ’90s urban fashion. But there are no hats on these heads, no hostile T-shirts, no heavy chains, no Walkmans. No security guards, no metal detectors. Loaded down with books, papers, binders, appointment calendars, these are serious kids who move purposefully, quickly, to their next classes. When the bell sounds, activity ceases and the business of learning takes over. A visitor walking through the hallways will hear about — in flowing succession — the vertex of quadratic equations, the conjugation of irregular Latin verbs, the political significance of tort reform, and the moral conundrum of Huck Finn.

Why does this school feel so very unlike other urban public high schools at the end of the 20th century? In a social and cultural climate that prizes “feeling good about yourself” over real accomplishment and “self-esteem” over hard work, where “differences” become excuses for mediocrity, and where far too many high school graduates cannot read, Boston Latin School stands out as an anomaly. Academically rigorous and intellectually challenging, the 362-year-old educational institution is a meritocracy that rewards achievement and resolutely embraces, even celebrates, the notion that a race is being run, and that some contestants will do better than others. “Excellence in education is not elitist,” Head Master Michael Contompasis (class of 1957) told the New York Times. “It is what made America strong.”

Legend has it that Harvard College was founded so that the Latin School’s graduates would have a suitable place to continue their studies. Five signers of the Declaration of Independence, including Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, and Samuel Adams, were Latin School students. Since 1635, BLS has maintained its undisputed reputation for excellence, surviving the twin “crises” of coeducation and desegregation in the 1970s, and later, fiscal uncertainty, layoffs, accusations of elitism, assaults on traditional education, and political maneuvering. This fall, BLS is emerging from its latest challenge: two years of painful debate and legal disputes over its racial quota system. The result? The new seventh-grade class has close to 20 percent fewer black and Hispanic students than any other class of the past two decades.

Although BLS is a public school, it is also an “exam school.” For acceptance, kids must score well on a rigorous entrance exam and have outstanding elementary school grades. Competition is fierce: For the roughly 440 places in the seventh-grade class, there are more than 3,000 applicants. Boston Latin gathers academically talented and motivated kids from every neighborhood, culture, and background in the city, then expects three hours of homework every night, five years of Latin from every entering seventh-grader, and a full complement of advanced-level courses. Ninety-eight percent of its graduates go to four-year colleges; close to 90 percent receive scholarships.

“Coming in the front door in seventh-grade, it’s kind of overwhelming,” says 1997 graduate Rashaun Martin. “We lose a lot of kids over the years. This may not be the place for them. But if it is, they’ll know it and figure it out. Believe me. I was at the bottom of the basement. I got a lot of encouragement, even when I was struggling. And I knew that if I wasn’t capable of doing the work I wouldn’t be here in the first place.”

Equity of opportunity has been fundamental to the Latin School’s identity since its founding in 1635. As part of the 1974 federally mandated desegregation plan, Boston Latin was required to admit entering classes that were at least 35 percent black and Hispanic. To meet that goal, it allotted close to 150 spaces for the entrance exam’s best-qualified black and Hispanic students. Once enrolled, all students were held to the same standards. Despite difficulties faced by many of the so-called quota kids, and a higher-than-average dropout rate, the set-aside program became embedded in the school’s operating plan, diversifying the previously 90 percent-white school.

“The kids have too much work to indulge in minor differences,” observes humanities teacher Chuck Aversa. “The focus here really is on excellence, and the single-minded energy, direction, and competition eliminates the importance of the ‘silver spoon’ vs. ‘great poverty’ dilemma. One kid here is the son of a world-renowned brain surgeon and lives in the most exclusive neighborhood in the city. In his English class is a girl whose mother threw her out of the house on her 18th birthday, as soon as she could no longer collect AFDC for her. She left school, found a place to live, married her sweetheart, and came back a year later. Somehow, she maintains a B+ average, and runs her household, and has a part-time job. These kids are incredible.”

Yet in August 1995, lawyer Michael McLaughlin brought a suit against the Boston School Committee on behalf of his 12-year-old daughter, Julia, claiming the Latin School’s “quota system” unfairly discriminated, because Julia, who is white, was not admitted, while 103 minority kids who received lower scores on the entrance exam were. The lawsuit, and the explosive media coverage it generated, became a lightning rod for Boston’s long-standing racial and educational woes. Julia was eventually admitted and the lawsuit dropped, but it led to a reawakening of old class and racial animosities, a significant restructuring of the quota system, and a re-examination of the value of diversity.

“I came here and it was a lot harder for me, because I am a black kid, and I did come here from the public schools,” says junior Naima Abdal-Khallaq. “A lot of other people came here from private schools. It’s something I had to deal with. I couldn’t just say, ‘It’s not fair that you had money to go to private school and I didn’t, so I’m not going to do my work.’ I think that there should be a quota system. Like affirmative action, it’s a way to help you get your foot in the door. But…once you get in here, you have to work.”

Marianne Staniunas was beginning her senior year when the McLaughlin suit was filed. Now a Harvard sophomore, she recalls the issues that affected her most: “What’s morally right, what’s educationally right?” she says. “The McLaughlin case, and its impact on the school, was intrusive and stressful to everyone. A friend of mine was being interviewed by the person from the New York Times about racial issues, and finally he said, ‘Look, Latin School isn’t a hotbed of racial controversy, it’s a hotbed of homework!’ Having the kind of diversity that Latin School embodied was absolutely one of the finest things about my education. I have to believe that there must be some way to avoid losing that.”

Sherry Lewis graduated from Latin School in 1988 and returned as a classics teacher three years ago. “As a student here, I never knew anything at all about these quotas. As a black woman, [the press] made me feel kind of subjugated to the whole idea of what this place is supposed to be — like I didn’t earn my way through. But…I know I deserved to be here. I personally don’t think the quota system is right. But I do think there’s a reason to look hard at the whole city and see why it is that kids from certain schools, certain parts of the city, kids from private and parochial schools, are getting into the Latin School, and other kids aren’t.”

Senior Emmanuella Duplessy, the daughter of Haitian parents, insists, “Boston Latin is not a perfect school. It’s not what people on the outside think it is. We run out of paper and we have old books. We run out of toilet paper! Our library is really small. We don’t have enough computers. It’s not this ideal place where there’s all this diversity and every person from every race gets along. But it’s not really about that. It’s about how good the people are inside the school — it’s like the real world.

“One of my friends, a black friend, called me a racist when I said I was against quotas. But I’ll stick to what I think. I mean, I’m all for equality, but it’s really hard to make things equal. It’s always going to be unfair in somebody’s eyes, you know? I just don’t want to be spoon-fed — it should be merit only that gets kids here, and then merit only that lets us stay.”

The class of seventh-graders starting Latin School this fall is about 17 percent black and Hispanic. “It may be that the school goes back to the old Latin School. It may be predominantly one race,” says Rashaun Martin, who would like to someday come back to Latin as its headmaster. “But I have to think that there are as many bright minority kids as there are white kids, and that they’ll get in to the school straight out. Obviously, I don’t know how this problem is going to go, because, after all, it’s politics.”

Head Master Contompasis adds: “A cultural imperative and a moral imperative now conflict with the legal standard, and we are caught on the horns of that dilemma. To me, the most frustrating thing is to wonder if the last 21 years have meant anything. It’s a step back in terms of the diversity of that incoming class. We now have ‘merit,’ and that’s fine. Only time will tell, in the long run, if the experiences those kids have will be as valuable, as rich, as we’ve had with the heterogeneous admissions policy of the last two decades.”

At the Latin School, students are required to declaim before their classmates three times a year. They are graded on the difficulty of the piece and their memorization skills as well as their character, appearance, carriage, quality of voice, pacing, clarity, and delivery. “Tell our visitor why we do declamation,” English teacher Jack Regan requests of a gawky, uncomfortable eighth-grader. “To build our confidence in public speaking, to improve our diction and delivery of ideas, to get good jobs after college. It’s a good tool to have. Even if it makes you really nervous at first,” he answers.

During Alumni Visiting Day in mid-May, Prize Declamation is held in the old auditorium, site of every student’s initiation to the rigors, expectations, traditions, and history of the Latin School. The 900 seats fill with upperclassmen, the stage before them nearly bare, save for a large ceremonial wooden chair — the headmaster’s chair — at one side, in front of the royal purple velvet curtain. Inscribed around the frieze of the enormous room are the names, newly refurbished, of some of the Latin School’s most respected alumni.

Precisely at noon, Contompasis and a small group of alumni enter to the strains of the school’s song. Everyone stands, and after the national anthem, the competition begins. The final decisions will be made by the 11 alumni judges, and should the winner be a senior, he or she will receive, along with the honor, a scholarship of $2,000.

There are 18 competitors; half are white, 15 are girls. Their selections range from Euripides and Shakespeare to Tolkien and Zora Neale Hurston. Their presentations are skillful, powerful, surprisingly moving, and deeply convincing. Talent, hard work, dedication, discipline, opportunity, dramatic presence, confidence, and pleasure emanate from the stage.

At the conclusion, the applause is spontaneous and prolonged. There is not just relief and appreciation in the clapping of hands, but also pride among the students in their classmates’ work, shared pleasure in their talents. After prolonged deliberation by the judges, the prize goes to a senior who declaimed from Terrence McNally’s play Master Class. The crowd whistles and stamps with approval. The spirit of Benjamin Franklin smiles.

Bebe Nixon is a Boston-based freelance writer and former WGBH television producer. Nicholas Nixon’s photographs last appeared in our January/February 1996 issue. This article is excerpted from the book School (Little, Brown, fall 1998).


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