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For Many In Boston, Debates Over Exam School Policy Distract From Larger Issues04:42
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Just before dinner on most weekdays, one can usually find 9-year old Isabella Kim playing an American Sign Language game with her 12 year old sister Madeline in their north end home.

"Who is this?" asks Madeline as she shows Isabella a photo of their father. She quickly signs the word for "Dad" by spreading out her fingers and putting her thumb on her forehead.

Madeline Kim, 12, shows her younger sister Isabella, 9, flash cards as they play the American Sign Language vocabulary game in the kitchen at their home in the North End. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Madeline Kim, 12, shows her younger sister Isabella, 9, flash cards as they play the American Sign Language vocabulary game in the kitchen at their home in the North End. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Both girls are in the Boston Public Schools system. Isabella, who is hard of hearing, attends the Horace Mann School for the Deaf, and Madeline just got into the Boston Latin School, one of BPS’ three exam schools.

"In our family we have two very different things going on where the system is affecting the futures of our children and our family," said Charlie Kim, the girls' father.

Kim watched the debate over exam school admissions, and which students had access to them, last year when his daughter was applying. But at the time, he was trying to deal with a more pressing issue in his eyes: the extensive water damage at the Horace Mann School for the Deaf.

Fourth floor ceiling tiles and walls stained from leaking from the roof in a hallway at Horace Mann School for the Deaf in Allston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Fourth floor ceiling tiles and walls stained from leaking from the roof in a hallway at Horace Mann School for the Deaf in Allston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Water damage has been an issue at the school for years. When WBUR toured the building in 2019 the district had recently announced plans to close the building at the end of the 2022 school year, citing major structural issues.

"There are sharp rusty things coming out of the walls," explains Kim of the current conditions inside the school. "You see water leaking in on electrical things like overhead projectors."

It frustrates Kim that the Horace Mann School — at the brink of a building closure — hardly gets noticed. And yet, the exam schools get an abundance of attention from the school committee and the public.

"I think it’s wrong, the amount of time and effort and political capitol that is placed into an exam school," he says. "We understand it’s a jewel, but it should be a model of what should happen throughout the rest of the district."

Damaged ceiling tiles due to rain leaking from the roof in a fourth floor office of the Jackson/Mann K-8 School in Allston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Damaged ceiling tiles due to rain leaking from the roof in a fourth floor office of the Jackson/Mann K-8 School in Allston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

While the district’s three exam schools don’t get more city funding than other district schools, Kim believes that all the attention they receive comes at the expense of other issues at BPS. Most district buildings lack air conditioning and 40% don’t have a functioning library.

City councilor Lydia Edwards believes the exam schools’ long, storied history, especially the Boston Latin School, is a major reason why it attracts so much consideration.

"You’re dealing with institutions that have existed for hundreds of years and there’s a whole rich history that comes with that — good, bad or whatever," Edwards says. "It’s almost like asking 'Why is Harvard an elite institution'... It’s unfair to say 'Why are you guys focused on this now.' It’s never not been focused on."

But Edwards adds a lot of pressure around exam school policy also comes from parents.

"Families believe that that’s a golden ticket in some cases," she said.

That golden ticket mentality cuts through socioeconomic circles, from poor to affluent families.

"I was with one of my friend's daughters when she found out she got into Boston Latin School, and she was crying because she knew that her kid's entire life changed by getting into that school," remembers Back Bay resident and former chair of the Massachusetts Republican Party Jennifer Nassour.

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Barbara Fields, a public education advocate and retired BPS office of equity director, adds that parents in lower income households feel the same way about getting into the exam schools too, especially Boston Latin School. "It opens doors," explains Fields. "You become a part of an exclusive club and also a club that has many many benefits ... People who have attended Boston Latin sit in high places."

Superintendent Brenda Cassellius concedes that discussions around the district’s three exam schools take up a lot of oxygen, especially considering only one in eight Boston Public Schools students are enrolled there.

"I do agree that we do spend a disproportionate amount of time talking about exam schools overall when we really need to be talking about the overall health and wellness and opportunity and access for all of our students in BPS," said Cassellius.

But she defends the amount of time and effort the district spent on the exam school entrance policy this year, which will now consider socioeconomic factors in addition to grades and test scores. She says it was a huge step toward improving diversity, especially at the Boston Latin School.

"I think it was time well spent," says Cassellius. "I think it was an important equity decision for our district. It was very symbolic."

The five major candidates for mayor have weighed in on the exam school admissions policy debate and they've also promised to invest equal time on bigger issues like updating district buildings and expanding access to rigorous material. UMASS Boston political science professor Paul Watanabe said these promises tend to surface every election.

"I think it’s a perennial accompaniment of every mayor’s race that I can remember that people have claimed, candidates on both sides, that one of their number one priorities is the success of the Boston schools," he explained.

But Watanabe argues that Boston voters don’t usually end up holding mayors accountable for the promises they make about schools. Which is why he believes elected officials in Boston almost always end up shifting their focus to exam school policy more than the success of the whole system.

For parent Charlie Kim that’s a frustrating cycle, because it leaves parents fighting for resources.

"You don’t want to be the squeaky wheel that gets everything," he says. "Because you look at all of Boston Public Schools and realize that there are so many other schools, so many other students, that are not getting that type of advocacy."

The effort to improve his daughter's school building ends up feeling like a competition, he said. That’s not something he feels great about.

Candidates On Education and Exam School Policy


Here are some highlights from each of the major candidates' proposals:


John Barros

  • Believes exam school entrance should require an exam
  • Wants to use one-time federal pandemic relief funds to help make pre-kindergarten free for all 3 and 4-year-olds in Boston
  • Wants to use additional city funds to meet family needs, like mental health services, and food access.
  • Wants to ensure art is offered in each school building and each school has outdoor play spaces.

Andrea Campbell

  • Supports the new exam school admissions policy that considers socioeconomic factors in addition to grades and test scores
  • Believes exam school entrance should require an exam
  • Wants to borrow money to improve school facilities.
  • Wants to use one-time federal pandemic relief funding to create a “student acceleration account” with $3,000 per child that parents and caregivers can use toward academic and social-emotional support

Annissa Essaibi George

  • Believes exam school entrance should require an exam
  • Believes the recent exam school admissions policy change was rushed and didn’t fully understand the impact on all district students.
  • Wants to use one-time federal pandemic relief funding to decrease disparities in classroom resources, increase district mental health resources and invest in teacher professional development.

Kim Janey

  • Supports the new exam school admissions policy that considers socioeconomic factors in addition to grades and test scores
  • Believes exam school entrance should require an exam
  • Wants to increase BPS’s capital budget by 29%
  • Will prioritize learning loss, digital equity, and school building upgrades when spending one-time federal pandemic relief funding

Michelle Wu

  • Supports the new exam school admissions policy that considers socioeconomic factors in addition to grades and test scores
  • Believes exam school entrance should require an exam
  • Will prioritize facility upgrades like windows and ventilation systems when spending one-time federal pandemic relief funds. She also wants to use the funds to increase district mental health supports and offer more compensatory services for students with disabilities.
  • Wants to expand universal pre-kindergarten

This segment aired on August 16, 2021.

Related:

Carrie Jung Twitter Senior Reporter, Edify
Carrie is a senior education reporter with Edify.

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