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Boston Moves To Revise Admissions Policies

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Moving to quell a dispute that has brought racial tensions in Boston to the fore, district officials took steps last week to alter the system of admitting students to the city's selective public high schools.

The debate over the admission policy, which reserves 35 percent of the seats in the schools for African-Americans and Hispanics, arose from a lawsuit brought last year by a white student who was denied admission to the city's prestigious Boston Latin High School because of the quota.

It has taken on significance beyond that immediate conflict, however, amplified by Boston's volatile history with race-based busing and a citywide election in November. Voters will determine whether the 63,000-student district will switch from an appointed to an elected school board.

"It's really opened up the whole Pandora's box of where kids are going to be sent to school," said Mark A. White, a lawyer for Julia McLaughlin, the 7th grader who challenged the Boston Latin policy in court.

U.S. District Judge W. Arthur Garrity last month ordered Boston Latin to accept Julia this fall pending a trial in the case. In that decision, he said the current quota system might well be unconstitutional. ("School Ordered To Admit Student Challenging Quota Policy," Sept. 4, 1996.)

Trial Delay Sought

Following that ruling, both Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant and Mayor Thomas M. Menino made clear their support for eliminating the quota.

But the Boston school board resisted abandoning the system outright. Instead of dropping its defense of the quota system altogether, the board asked Judge Garrity on Sept. 12 to postpone a trial in the McLaughlin case until at least February while it considers alternatives.

"This decision by the [school] committee should not be understood as an admission that the 35 percent set-aside is unconstitutional," Henry C. Dinger, a lawyer for the school board, wrote to Judge Garrity. "However, the committee has never taken the position that the current system is the best or only way to achieve its fundamental educational objectives."

Last week, Mr. Payzant laid out a list of alternatives to the current system.

The school board then appointed a task force of parents, community activists, educators, and board members to weigh those and other options and report back by Nov. 20.

That date is two weeks after Boston voters go to the polls to decide the school board's fate. They will vote Nov. 5 on whether to scrap the seven-member board appointed by the mayor and return to a 13-member elected board.

Mr. White is among those who believe the school board is trying to relegate the quota controversy to the back burner until after the election. But Elizabeth Reilinger, the board's vice chairwoman, denied that, saying the time is needed to deliberate properly and hold the three public hearings on the quota issue that the board has promised.

Problem Not Unique

Boston is not alone in wrestling with how to allocate scarce seats in highly regarded, academically rigorous public schools.

New York and Philadelphia, which also have high schools with rigorous entrance criteria, have largely avoided such difficulties.

But in San Francisco, school officials used a new system for choosing this fall's entering class at the city's top-rated Lowell High School. The previous policy had been challenged by a group of Chinese-American students. ("Admissions Policy Approved," March 6, 1996.)

The old system there set up a range of cutoff scores that varied depending on students' ethnicity. Chinese-American and white students were required to post higher scores to gain entry than such groups as Latinos or African-Americans.

Under the new policy, all students who score above 63 on a 69-point scale on an entrance exam automatically gain admission, regardless of ethnicity.

Students scoring below 63 but above 54 may or may not be admitted, depending on factors including poverty, special talents or abilities, honors courses, and extenuating family circumstances.

If they are black, Hispanic, or Native American, however, applicants are automatically admitted if they score above 50, regardless of other factors. In part because of that preference, the new method remains controversial.

Options Outlined

As Boston struggles to devise its own solution, Mr. Payzant, in a presentation to the school board last week, listed a range of factors that could be weighed besides grades and test scores. They included:

  • Poverty, by making use of census data or eligibility for free or reduced-price lunches;
  • Where the student lives, to help ensure access for students from all neighborhoods;
  • Whether and how long a student has attended Boston public schools, to counteract a perceived advantage enjoyed by the large number of applicants from private schools; and
  • Student-written essays such as those used by colleges.

Mr. Payzant also pointed out that students could be selected by various forms of lotteries and that a new formula for weighing grades and test scores could be devised.

"We want to find a way to make the exam process the most fair and reflective of the student body as it is today," Ms. Reilinger said. "This is not a simple question."

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