Contompasis Focuses On 'Tone' To Help Heal Boston Latin

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Interim Boston Latin Headmaster Michael Contompasis (Courtesy of Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe)
Interim Boston Latin Headmaster Michael Contompasis (Courtesy of Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe)

The new interim headmaster of Boston Latin School said in an interview Monday he’s ready to bring unity and healing to the school in the coming year.

Michael Contompasis was named headmaster of BLS after the former leader, Lynne Mooney Teta, resigned amid claims she had not responded adequately to racially charged incidents.

There are very few things about Boston Latin School that are new to Contompasis. For 22 years, he was the headmaster; before that, he was a BLS teacher — and before that, he was a BLS student.

But 18 years after leaving the headmaster's office, as he returns as the interim leader, there is one thing Contompasis is still trying to wrap his head around.

"Particularly dealing with what is new to me here in returning, and that is the explosion of social media," he said. In his previous stint leading the school, "We were lucky if we had two or three students that had cellphones."

It was a set of racist Twitter messages last November that prompted two Boston Latin students to post a YouTube video claiming that Teta, then headmaster, didn’t do enough to address their concerns. Here’s some of what the two students said in the video:

"Hashtag BLS: when your white peers are using Twitter and Facebook to put out racial slurs and then you print them out and put them in a binder and give them your headmaster and she does nothing about it!"

Teta soon resigned, and Boston Public Schools brought in Contompasis -- a familiar face to the BLS community.

He and members of his team have spent the summer coming up with plans for the new school year. First up: setting parameters on what is acceptable behavior — not only in school but online.

"First of all," Contompasis said, "we’ve got to set a tone that suggests what’s acceptable and what’s not."

Contompasis did not give specifics of the school’s social media plan. But one major difference this year is that parents will be notified the moment an incident comes up in the school. BLS has hired a full-time staff member to communicate with parents.

"I do think that there is a need for all of us periodically to think about how we address students," Contompasis said. "What may pass to someone as an insensitive remark may not be that in the head of the individual."

Teachers will undergo professional development to learn ways to engage with the school's diverse population of students.

And then there is the big district initiative: to increase the number of minority students at exam schools, including BLS. This summer, the district asked principals in places like Dorchester and Mattapan to recommend students to participate in a prep program for the exam-school test.

And the numbers have spiked. This year, 20 percent of students in the program were black, up from 10 percent last year. The percentage of Hispanic students rose from 14 to 26 percent.

"It's telling students over and over that they belong here," Contompasis said. "And that anybody who tells them they don't, we're not going to put up with. Have there been people that have said that over time? Uh-huh. But again we want to set that tone."

Michael Curry, president of the Boston branch of the NAACP, said Monday he’s encouraged by the steps Contompasis and BPS are taking -- and he’d like for Boston community members to be able to weigh in.

"Communities should have some part to play in that process," Curry said. "And part of that is making sure that Boston Latin is an option for all of the kids in Boston, and we can secure a pipeline for students who quite frankly have not had access to the school."

Contompasis said Boston Latin School will continue the conversation, including race dialogues within the school. And, he said, he’s hoping to spend his short time as interim head to lay the groundwork for the permanent headmaster — someone Superintendent Tommy Chang is expected to name in March 2017.

This segment aired on August 23, 2016.


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Tonya Mosley was the LA-based co-host of Here & Now.



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