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Posted August 27, 2005 in race and education
Michael Danziger, "Living the Dream at Latin School," Boston Globe (August 27, 2005)

Living the dream at Latin School
By Michael P. Danziger | Boston Globe, August 27, 2005

THE DRAMATIC decrease in representation of black and Latino students at Boston Latin School highlights a problem that Boston, and other major urban centers, face today. Moreover, the consequences of this issue will plague these cities for years to come as another generation of bright, motivated, hardworking children are left behind.

No one can argue that the widening gap between the demographics of children of Boston and the representation at Boston's most competitive public schools is alarming. Nor could anyone who has spent time in the neighborhoods that send the smallest percentage of their students to exam schools make a case that the students from these neighborhoods are not, on the whole, as bright as their more fortunate counterparts, do not have caring support at home, or do not have dreams of a bright and useful future.

Having worked with families from these neighborhoods for 15 years, I have witnessed the most compelling evidence that circumstance has no correlation to ability, ambition, or determination, yet only to opportunity.

The question facing us is not whether the children can do the work at the exam schools; they can, and, when given the opportunity, they have. The issue is more to do with how we prepare and support the students for success, given the current admissions criteria.

Mere recruitment is not enough. Knowing about an opportunity, for whose admissions process one is woefully ill prepared though not at all underqualified, will not ensure a dramatic rise in the number of under-represented students. I submit that it will only ensure a rise in the number of qualified and bitterly disappointed students.

While recruitment is important -- without knowing about an opportunity there is no way a child can begin to avail himself of it -- it is only the first step. The two other components are preparation and support.

Once families are made aware of the opportunities that the exam schools afford, and that the schools are not beyond their grasp, their children must begin preparing for the competitive admissions procedure.

Since admissions are based on test scores and grades, a pragmatic approach to preparation is one that focuses on the specific skills needed to score well on the entrance exam, as well as the study skills needed to ensure good marks in the sixth grade. The course should be demanding, both in its content as well as the commitment required for it. After all, if the student is unwilling to commit to what is required to get into Latin School, her chances of succeeding if admitted are slim indeed.

Getting into Latin School cannot be the goal of a successful program. Succeeding at the school, and getting into a four-year college, is the metric that matters most. Being admitted to Boston's most competitive school is no guarantee of success. In fact, Latin School is so rigorous, many of the students who are admitted in seventh grade fail to graduate. A child who cannot take full advantage of Latin School may see only himself to blame. Nothing, of course, could be farther from the truth, but try telling that to a 14-year-old with a shattered ego and wrecked dreams. What this child needs is support. Before he or she gets in, he needs to know exactly what is in store for him, both academically and socially.

The transition from most of Boston's middle schools to Boston Latin is a huge one, and whatever can be done should be done to bridge the gap.

Once the student is at Latin School, he or she will need regular, though not overwhelming support to ensure that he or she is adjusting to the new environment. A caring adviser, preferably someone who has made the same transition that the student is attempting to make, will increase the likelihood that the nervous seventh grader who enters the big doors on Avenue Louis Pasteur will flip her tassel there six years later.

Asking the schools whose students are under-represented at Latin to make up for the vast advantages in resources that those from more affluent backgrounds have is not fair to the schools. What is needed are sound preparation programs.

Of course there is a cost to bear, but that should be no surprise. The students are competing against children whose families have spent great sums of money (often over many generations) gaining an advantage. We cannot expect students from under-represented neighborhoods to level the playing field without expending resources. The funds needed to recruit, prepare, and support the students will be made up many times over by the contributions the students make to their communities once they are equipped with the education to which they are entitled.

Michael P. Danziger is president of the Steppingstone Foundation.

Category: race and education