Boston -- With Virgil's ``Aeneid'' open on their desks, students at Boston Latin School enthusiastically respond to a barrage of questions about the Roman epic depicting the travels and travails of the Trojan warrior Aeneas.
``Who is disguised as a Spartan maiden?'' asks veteran teacher Catherine Wight, in a classroom bedecked with posters of Greek vases and models of the Parthenon and a gladiator's plumed helmet. Nearly all 31 students raise their hands, as several Latin honors students shout out the correct answer -- Venus, the goddess of love and beauty, who was also Aeneas' mother.
The competition in the classroom is a product of the battle to earn one of the prized places at Boston Latin. Founded in 1635 -- one year before Harvard University, in nearby Cambridge -- the school is the most prestigious in the Boston public school system.
Now, the nation's oldest public school finds itself at the center of a very modern controversy: whether it will be able to maintain its 23-year-old affirmative action policy guaranteeing a certain number of spots for blacks and Latinos.
Next month, the Boston school district will go to court to fend off a lawsuit filed by a ninth-grader whose parents claim she was denied admission because she is white. [an error occurred while processing this directive] The suit is one of a growing number of legal challenges to the uses of racial categories and quotas in the nation's public schools, including those in San Francisco.
If successful, the suits could jeopardize decades-long desegregation efforts in the nation's schools. In many cases, districts have adopted complicated admissions policies to ensure racial and ethnic balance in their schools. For example, in San Francisco, a 15- year-old court-supervised consent decree mandates that no single ethnic group can comprise more than 40 percent of the enrollment at any one school.
Chinese American parents have sued the district to end that policy. One family claims their 5- year-old was denied admission to three kindergarten programs because of his race. Another parent claims her son was shut out of Lowell High School because of preferences granted to black and Latino students.
Until now, the major conflict over affirmative action in education has centered on admissions to colleges and universities. Critics of affirmative action have argued that the focus of educational efforts should be to adequately prepare students in elementary and secondary schools so that affirmative action programs at the college level will not be needed.
But legal challenges are raising fears that talented minority students could be denied educational opportunities at lower levels of the educational ladder -- reducing even further the number of minority students able to gain access to college without the benefit of affirmative action programs.
``I don't worry about students who don't get into University of California law schools, because they will enroll somewhere else,'' said Michael Contompasis, Boston Latin's principal who has been a teacher at the school for 30 years. ``I worry about kids who are struggling to get into the pipeline so they indeed will have some options by the time they get to college.''
5 YEARS OF LATIN
At first glance, it is hard to know why students apply in droves to attend Boston Latin. Each of its approximately 2,400 students must study Latin for five years, in addition to another foreign language. Three hours of homework a night, college-level classes and unrelenting competition from other students are routine. But it is clear that the education Boston Latin has to offer is superior to almost every other school, private or public, in Boston.
``A lot of students are going crazy, but they know they are going to be better prepared to get into a better college,'' said Tony Dang, a junior who is struggling with honors classes in U.S. history and government, in addition to his French and Latin classes. ``They really force you to do the work, so there are no excuses. You know you are going to learn more.''
Boston Latin has, in fact, been the gateway to college for generations of working-class Bostonians. In 1974, as part of a desegregation order, the school changed from an all-white and all-male bastion and began reserving 35 percent of its slots for black and Latino students. That ratio reflected the racial makeup of the school district at the time.
Students must take an entrance exam to gain admission, as they do at San Francisco's Lowell High. At Boston Latin, all students must score at least at the 50th percentile to be admitted, but most have far higher scores. To maintain the 35 percent minority ratio, however, many black and Latino students with lower test scores than whites were routinely admitted.
The system went unchallenged until 1995. That is when Michael McLaughlin, a Boston lawyer, sued the school district because it denied admission to his daughter Julia, even though she scored higher than at least 100 other students who were admitted. He challenged similar policies at the city's two other public ``exam'' schools, Boston Latin Academy and the O'Bryant School of Mathematics and Science.
Instead of fighting the suit, the district dropped its 35 percent quota. In its place, the district instituted a complicated admissions plan that still grants some preferences to blacks and Latinos. And the district admitted Julia, along with 150 others who were initially denied admission, whom officials generically refer to as ``other Julias.'' Now, half of all slots are filled based solely on grade and test scores. The remaining slots are filled with students who reflect the racial and ethnic makeup of the overall applicant pool.
The impact of the new policy was immediate: This fall the number of blacks and Latinos dropped by half. Only 18 percent of the freshman class is black or Latino -- compared with 75 percent of the 63,000 students in the Boston public school system.
BIAS AGAINST WHITES
But McLaughlin and other parents insist that the new policy still discriminates against whites. In August, he filed a suit on behalf of Sarah Wessman, a white ninth- grader who was denied admission to the school despite having higher test scores than some students who were admitted.
McLaughlin is unapologetic about the effects his suits have had on minority enrollments.
``The fact that blacks and Hispanics have a tougher time as a group is not something that can be put on the back of Sarah Wessman,'' said McLaughlin.
He said that when the quotas were first introduced, there was clear evidence that the Boston schools had engaged in discriminatory practices. That, he said, is no longer the case.
``My own daughter outscored 103 people who were accepted, yet she could not go, simply because she was white, not because she was involved in any past discrimination,'' he said. ``Her mother came from Sicily, my parents came from England and Canada and were not involved in any way with prior maltreatment of blacks and Hispanics. So how does that burden fall on my daughter Julia? How does it fall on Sarah?''
The controversy over admissions has provoked more discussion outside the school than inside -- perhaps because everyone at the school benefited from the admissions policy.
``Most of us are talking about when the next test is, not how we were admitted,'' said senior Rasheena Howard. Nonetheless, she said she agreed that some form of affirmative action is needed. ``We need variety,'' she said. ``If we didn't have a quota, the school would be almost 90 percent white.
Most students seem to accept the notion that students who attend public elementary schools in Boston are unlikely to do well on Boston Latin's entrance exam and that they may need some special help in getting in. Said senior class president Peter Georges-Clapp, ``Hopefully in the future we won't need a quota, but right now there is too much of a disparity.''
ACADEMIC BOOT CAMPS
As a result of the controversy, the school district has begun to help public school students prepare for the entrance exam. And for the first time last summer, it offered seven academic ``boot camps'' for all fifth-graders, even if they did not attend public schools.
``We probably should have started enrichment programs in the feeder schools a heck of a lot earlier,'' concedes Contompasis.
That, McLaughlin says, is precisely his point. If the school district had tutored students for the test, he argues, there would never have been a need for racial quotas. Instead, he said, the race-based policy allowed the school district to hide behind its own mediocrity. ``It never had to worry about these kids getting low test scores, because 35 percent were going to be let in anyhow under the quota,'' he said.
Carved into Boston Latin's front walls are the words of the Roman poet Cicero: Haec studia adolescentiam alunt -- these pursuits nourish youth.
Now, however, educators are lamenting the possibility that far fewer low-income minority students will have access to the school's 362-year tradition of rigorous scholarship.
``Schools like this and Lowell are more important than at any time in the history of this country,'' Contompasis said, ``because of the opportunities they provide for kids who don't normally have access to this kind of education.''
CHALLENGING AFFIRMATIVE ACTION
Boston isn't the only city where affirmative action has been attacked. School districts in a growing number of other cities are facing similar challenges.
-- San Francisco (64,000 students): Chinese American parents are suing the school district over admissions policies that restrict access to some of the district's most competitive schools, including Lowell High, the district's elite academic school. The case is being appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco and will not be resolved for at least a year.
-- Arlington, Va. (18,000 students): In response to a suit filed by parents of three white preschoolers, a federal judge ruled in May that the school system was violating the U.S. constitution by using racial preferences to admit students to its three magnet schools.
-- Houston (209,000 students): Parents of two white students sued the district in May after they were denied admission to Lanier Middle School, a magnet school, because of racial caps on enrollment. The lawsuit is being financed by the Campaign for a Color Blind America, a Houston-based organization that is vowing to bring similar suits against dozens of other school districts.
-- Akron, Ohio (33,000 students): A federal judge in August ordered the district to drop its practice of barring white students from transferring to nearby suburban districts while allowing African American youngsters to do so. ``To create racial preferences or regulations, even for the most admirable and benign of purposes, is to reinforce and preserve for future mischief the way of thinking that produced race slavery, race privilege and race hatred,'' Judge Sam Bell ruled.