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Boston Latin School Learns a New Lesson : Shaper of Yuppies Comes to Grips With Reality of Minority Needs in Education

Times Staff Writer

It sounds like a cross between a prison and a pawn shop. The windows are nailed shut. Much of the equipment and furniture is acquired stealthily from random sources. It hasn’t had an overhaul in 60 years. The inmates are treated “cruelly,” are forced to “sink or swim” in an environment governed by strict rules and unforgiving taskmasters.

Welcome to the Boston Latin School.

It’s a public school where yuppies of many eras were made, if not born. It claims as former students composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, journalist and historian Theodore H. White and five signers of the Declaration of Independence, including Benjamin Franklin and John Hancock.

Ethnic Mix Changing

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This place of academic torture and poor interior design--350 years old last month and seemingly as anachronistic as a toga with its requirement for five years of Latin--is also a miniature of the whirlwind that is American education today. Once 92% white, the six-year prep school is under court order to admit at least 35% minority students to its entering classes. And it may be ordered to admit more minority students as the ethnic mix of the Boston public schools continues to change.

All this is perfect grounds for argument and agonizing, which is just what happened during the weekend as the school’s Southern California alumni gathered at a USC conference where experts dissected their alma mater’s new student body.

In a daylong session punctuated by greeting and luncheon speeches in Latin, the experts debated an issue that bedevils the country’s schools. Namely, the interplay of law and politics on education, whether democracy and the pursuit of excellence can ever reach equilibrium in the public schools.

Somber Statistics

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The discussion took place against a background of somber statistics about the Boston public schools more than a decade after a federal court ordered integration. Today, only one in 10 families with school-age children in the city send their youngsters to the city’s schools. Thirty percent of students are absent every day. A decade ago, 60% of students were white; today, fewer than 30% are and within six years it’s projected that no white students will be left in the school system. Meanwhile, total enrollment has dropped from 110,000 to about 50,000 as white families have fled the district or enrolled their children in private schools.

But despite this litany, the man on the firing line, headmaster Michael P. Contompasis, told the audience that the 1974 integration order was “timely and necessary” and that “the major lesson of the Latin School is the complementarity of equity and excellence.” With the advent of tutorial programs and other help for disadvantaged students, the headmaster added, “We have become a much more humane place, I think.” Moreover, he said, “The diversity that these youngsters bring to us has indeed made the school a stronger place to be.”

Days Before ‘Deseg’

The academic record has been good, too, Contompasis said, noting that about 98% of graduates apply for college and that about two dozen or so of each year’s 280 to 290 graduates go on to Harvard--just as they did in the days before “deseg.”

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But he conceded the downside of the story is that about 35% of black and Latino students entering each year drop out sooner or later, compared with about 18% of whites and “practically zero percent” of Asian-Americans.

While he can live with today’s situation, Contompasis--and others--said it is time to draw the line. The headmaster, who said he spends his summers scrounging furniture and lab equipment because of budget cutbacks, declared he is against a motion in federal court that would require “that the student body represent the racial percentages that exist in the school district.” This would mean increasing black enrollment to 57% of current enrollment of 2,300, he said.

What worries Contompasis most is that to admit more minority students, the school probably would have to lower its entrance requirements, already reduced to meet earlier desegregation rulings, the headmaster said. Students are admitted to Boston Latin School on the basis of an exam and grade point average, he added. Two admittance lists are maintained, one for non-minorities and one for minorities, which means that some non-minority students are not admitted even though their test scores and grade averages are higher than minority students who are admitted, he explained. Minority students must score at least in the 50th percentile on the exam to be admitted.

Where the Battle Is

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“I can guarantee equality of access, we must do that,” he told the conference. “I cannot guarantee equality of results, no matter what we try to do.” To be forced to admit a greater number of minority students would mean “going below what we consider to be the minimal level of entrance requirement,” he said, adding, “That is where our battle is.”

The assertion that standards should no longer be sacrificed to quotas was shared by other speakers, including Donald A. Erickson, a professor at UCLA’s graduate school of education.

Speaking in what he called “fairly stark terms,” Erickson contended the pursuit of equality in education has perhaps gone too far. He said he was particularly upset by proposals that would eliminate or reduce “tracking,” a practice whereby students of similar abilities are grouped.

“Mixing low-ability students in significant numbers into a classroom of high-ability students is going to have a profoundly deleterious effect upon the classroom atmosphere and upon conditions for learning,” he maintained.

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Erickson concluded “that improving the effective tone of classrooms of disadvantaged students by sacrificing the development of the nation’s best minds would never be worth the education and social price that we would have to pay for it.”

Julian Nava, a former member and president of the Los Angeles school board and ambassador to Mexico during the Carter Administration, noted that the definition of minorities has been changing over much of the nation’s history, from Irish and Jews in the last century to blacks, Latinos, women and gays today. By pigeonholing a person solely on the basis of ethnic group, talent and potential are often overlooked, he said.

Noting that his Latino background was the reason a counselor steered him toward auto repair in high school, Nava said he would include in his list of minorities “those students who have the potential to be truly excellent in whatever it is they want to do.” He added that “what education should do is guarantee more equal access and not guarantee equal results . . . I think that as the issues all of us face become more and more critical, we all have to depend more upon excellence.”

‘Fair Crack at a Chance’

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The challenge to schools, particularly public ones, is to “meet individual needs of students far more effectively than in the past, in which case so-called minority groups fade into irrelevance because all they have wanted in the main was a fair crack at a chance,” Nava said.

Fred Okrand, a former director of the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, was the only speaker to come out strongly in favor of traditional desegregation policies.

Looking out at the group of about 50, Okrand said, “It is not any great honor that there are no blacks out there in the audience.” He added that there’s “something out there” that generally prevents blacks’ integration into groups such as the one he was addressing.

Before he had heard Contompasis’ remark that the integration order was justified, Okrand said, “I got the impression that everybody in the (Boston) school district was against desegregation and I’m glad to see I was wrong.”

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Okrand also said that he thought it was “impossible for those in the audience to understand the impact of segregation on children.” If forced to choose, Okrand concluded, he would opt for further integration of Boston Latin, even if it meant a decline in the school’s overall academic performance.

Conciliatory View

UCLA assistant professor James Catterall promoted what he called “a conciliatory view.” Despite its troubles, the school “remains in an absolutely enviable position,” he said. " . . . Wishing a return to the past, I think, is pointless.”

What has been threatened, Catterall said, is the school’s “charter,” the word he used for the mixture of academic reputation and social prestige that creates an image of excellence that is seldom questioned.

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“The graduate of a charter school has to go out of his way to prove his incompetence,” he said. “We have a natural reliance on charters to sort people.”

When a school boasts of famous and accomplished graduates, it’s often overlooked that “try as we would, 99.9% of us could never go to Latin School and come out Leonard Bernstein.” Catterall cautioned against too much hand-wringing because “the pipeline to Harvard has sprung a few leaks.” Boston Latin, he said, should be more concerned with a future in which it pursues “excellence in fact” rather than “excellence of charter.”

The Puritan Legacy

In closing the conference, John Orr, dean of USC’s School of Education, noted that Boston Latin School was founded by Puritans, a minority that left England because of discrimination and created an education system based on the then-radical notion of merit.

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Today, he said, it is his impression that “the tides are moving away” from educational programs that isolate the gifted, largely because there is “cynicism about the instruments by which the gifted are identified.”

At the same time, however, Orr said there is growing interest in greater choice of academic programs in schools and that could guarantee a future for Boston Latin School with its specialized programs.


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