If all you saw of John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science was its back-to-school community potluck this September, you might think it was just like any other public high school.
At the front of the cafeteria, a parent council member stands to give a short speech welcoming attendees and gestures toward tables stacked with raffle tickets and desserts. After the announcement ends, conversation resumes. Parents raise their voices to make themselves heard over the complete discography of Michael Jackson pulsing from a large speaker.
But beneath the unremarkable surface hums a quiet intensity: The race to secure a seat at O’Bryant, one of Boston’s three public “exam high schools,” begins as early as the third grade. Boston, like several other urban public school districts in the country, boasts an elevated tier of highly coveted test-in high schools that many parents see as a direct path to a place like Harvard.
Parents jostle to get their children into advanced programming, shell out large sums of money for tutoring, and lottery for temporary placement in charter schools — all for a shot at sending their kid to an exam school and, later, a big-name university.
For many in Boston, middle school choice is all about high school acceptance. High school acceptance is all about college admissions.
At O’Bryant, flyers plastered across the cafeteria walls encourage students to visit their college counselors. “HAVE YOU MET US?” one asks in large print. “Come Say Wassup. College is coming. Let’s make it easier.”
“We always knew that we wanted our kids to go for higher education, and there was a particular push towards that at the exam schools,” says Derrick A. Samuels, parent to two exam school students. He sits at a lacquered cafeteria table and braces his elbows against the blue-and-white tablecloth. O’Bryant’s focus on higher education meant “the school would tell us what [our kids] had to do in order to be in a position to apply for college,” he says. “That’s not something we would have had in a public school setting.”
“Well, a public, non-exam-school setting,” interjects Rebekah E. Samuels, Derrick’s wife. The exchange reveals a truth well established among Boston parents: while the city of Boston is home to dozens of different public schools, O’Bryant, Boston Latin Academy (BLA), and Boston Latin School (BLS) rank in a league of their own.
The race to enter that league has clear winners and losers.
Black and Hispanic children make up nearly 75 percent of Boston’s student-age population — but represent just 40 percent of the students enrolled in the exam schools. And at BLS, the largest and most selective of the top-tier trio, black and Hispanic students comprise 20 percent of enrollees.
Boston is a diverse city with a fraught racial past, and its public school system reflects this ongoing tension. The exam schools, on the other hand, have remained largely untouched. Those lucky enough to take a seat in exam school classrooms can count on a rigorous high school education and, later, maybe even a degree from a prestigious university — along with all the career security that affords.
Ever since a controversial lawsuit challenging Harvard’s race-conscious admissions policies went to trial in Boston last month, reporters, lawyers, and spectators across the nation have begun scrutinizing how prospective students win spots at American colleges and universities and the role that race and class play in that process. Currently, Harvard takes what it calls a “holistic” approach to admissions, meaning admissions officers weigh metrics including a candidates’ test scores, personal qualities, and racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.
The Boston exam school system pursues a very different tactic. Exam schools evaluate only supposedly “objective” criteria, taking into consideration students’ GPAs and their scores on a test called the Independent School Entrance Exam (ISEE). Lawyers for Students for Fair Admissions, the anti-affirmative action advocacy group that sued Harvard in Nov. 2014, have repeatedly argued in court that this method of admissions is fairer and should replace a race-conscious process.
But, at Harvard and at Boston public schools, these so-called “objective” metrics may not deserve the name. The game of who gets in where is undergirded — and, to a certain extent, predetermined — by a complex ecosystem of devoted parents, well-paid tutors, and driven students.
“In Boston, you really have to advocate for your kids, be educated, know what’s going on, and ask questions,” Rebekah says. “Otherwise things just happen, and unless you catch them…” She lapses into silence.
“If your kid misses the lottery for the charter schools, that's an option that you don't have. If your kid misses the ISEE, if you don't sign them up for it, they don't take the exam.”
Cameron B. Jones ’20 still remembers his first day at Curley K-8 School. The cafeteria thrummed with first-day-of-school energy. “Troy!” an excited fourth grader exclaimed, tapping Jones on his shoulder. Jones turned quickly and took in an unfamiliar face. “Oh, you’re not Troy,” the fourth grader realized, disappointed.
His mistake was understandable: Jones, “Troy,” and the unnamed fourth grader were among the few white students at Curley, a predominantly black and Hispanic public school in Jamaica Plain.
Jones had just met one of his classmates in the Advanced Work Class, or AWC, a long-standing Boston Public Schools program that delivers an accelerated curriculum to students in the fourth, fifth, and sixth grades.
Whether or not you’re invited to join the AWC program depends on how you score on a single test administered in the fall of the third grade: the Terra Nova.
It’s treated like any other test day. Teachers’ instructions to their students are clear: get a good night’s rest beforehand and be sure to eat breakfast the morning of. Less clear is the role AWC plays in preparing students to compete for slots at the exam schools, which accept students as seventh graders.
“They told us that most of the kids do AWC in order to go to the exam schools,” says Derrick Samuels, the parent from O’Bryant, referring to school administrators at Ohrenberger School. “And they did help with that — that was a big part of the program.”
For Candice M. Belanoff, another parent from O’Bryant, AWC seemed like “a program for kids who want to work harder and more.” She did not think it was necessary for her then-third grader to “put his nose to the grindstone and crank every night on homework.” She says, laughing, that “that just wasn't the type of life or childhood we really wanted for him.”
Belanoff wasn’t wrong — the program is challenging. Jones says the sizable reading assignments sometimes forced him to stay up well into the early morning. He was in the fourth grade at the time.
To prove they deserve the advanced track and the separate classroom, AWC students must retest each year and maintain top grades. Then, in the sixth grade, they can choose to take the ISEE for a chance to win a slot at an exam school.
When one of Billie Jo Weiss’s daughters got waitlisted for the AWC program, Weiss started worrying. “I wasn't sure how it was going to impact my child trying to get into an exam school,” she recalls. “Was she going to be prepared? Was she going to be ready?”
Her concern is hardly unmerited: on the exam, the extra hours of homework AWC demands of enrollees seem to pay off. “By the time they finish sixth grade, [AWC students] are really operating at an end of seventh grade level,” Belanoff says. “When they take the ISEE, they are leagues ahead of the rest of the pack who haven’t had the experience.”
Shena C. Lambright, a parent at O’Bryant, agrees. For her, the journey does not end at the ISEE. “[AWC] is a strong pathway to getting into an exam school,” she says. “Then if you're in an exam school and you do well, into a college of choice.”
In 2015, the Boston Public School system announced it would offer the rigor of the AWC curriculum to all students via a program titled “Excellence for All” and forged in response to parent complaints about the kind of segregation Jones witnessed. Whether or not the initiative has been effective so far is unclear.
Because AWC has its own classroom and programming, Jones and his peers spent most of their time together, cordoned off from the rest of the school. “The Advanced Work Class had all the white kids in the school,” he recalls. “It was an interesting thing to notice in the cafeteria, just sort of looking around — I don’t remember interacting with the other kids.” Apart from lunch and physical education classes, the AWC students rarely mixed with the others at Curley, he says.
Jones and his AWC classmates had scored spots on the fast track leading to the exam school system. As Jones slowly realized, very few of his black and Hispanic peers had done the same.
Once he completed the AWC program at Curley, Jones tested into BLS. Soon after graduating BLS, he matriculated at Harvard.
One of the first things Carlos I. Henriquez noticed was the sheer number of cars jamming the narrow West Roxbury street. He was driving to drop his daughter off at ISEE tutoring — one way to set her on the path to an exam school. He remembers seeing a stream of parents enter the building. He was surprised. He had assumed he was “ahead of the ballgame,” he says.
For nearly as long as there have been admissions tests, there have been companies that promise to boost the scores of hopeful applicants. America’s oldest standardized test, the SAT, was created in 1926. Roughly a decade later, a tutoring business emerged to meet demand.
And there is definite demand for ISEE tutoring. According to a study conducted by researchers at the Harvard Kennedy School, the version of the ISEE used by the Boston Public Schools tests knowledge typically not taught before the start of the sixth grade. That means the highest scores on the test — the kind required to get into an exam school — can be achieved only by those able to pay for private, extra lessons.
The firm Henriquez chose, which he says is called “Pat Bench Tutoring,” is ISEE- and exam school-focused and has a “vetting process” for students, he says.
Companies like Bench’s, Henriquez says, want to boost their exam school admit rate — which, in turn, grows their business. So they prefer students likely to see success in the admissions process over those likely to be left behind. This means that, in the exam school admissions game, even the process of finding a tutor can be both competitive and expensive.
Henriquez and his daughter were almost turned away.
Given that ISEE scores and grades hold equal weight in the exam school admissions process, Henriquez’s child’s second honor roll status — alongside her B+ in English and A- in Math — counted as a liability.
An employee at Bench “flat out told me, she said, 'Carlos, it's going to be pretty risky,’” Henriquez remembers. (Bench could not be reached for comment.)
Weiss, a co-chair of the Student Parent Council at O’Bryant, also went to Bench for her daughter’s ISEE tutoring. She says it cost her around $1,000. That’s actually on the lower end: costs for ISEE tutoring programs can reach beyond $4,000. The alternative is a free preparatory course offered by the Boston Public Schools that has a limited number of seats.
Henriquez says he heard about Bench from a friend of a friend in Newton, an affluent suburb of Boston. There is little to no information online about the firm, except for brief mentions on parent blogs and forums. These sites are typically run by parents whose children already attend exam schools.
Mothers and fathers who know where to look flock together on these forums to seek reassurance and advice. Much of the online chatter revolves around testing.
Parents post on popular websites like College Confidential asking for the exact criteria the Boston Public School system uses to calculate the score for admission to BLS. Many of them keep their children’s ISEE scores and Math and English grades close at hand as they surf the Internet hoping to gain a realistic sense of their children’s chances.
Anxious Boston mothers and fathers want to know: How good is good enough?
For Henriquez, BLS is “the ultimate prize.” “I've been planning this, wanting this, for my daughter since she was born,” he confesses.
At BLS, Harvard isn’t a pipe dream. It’s a school just across the Charles, well within reach.
“There’s a huge culture at BLS of trying to get into Harvard,” says Daniel E. Sherman ’20, a BLS alumnus. He remembers that a significant number of his classmates applied. “If you're in very good academic standing at BLS, then everybody just assumes you're applying to Harvard,” he adds.
The perceived connection between BLS and Harvard is very real. A 2013 Crimson report found that one in every 20 freshmen hails from just seven high schools — and BLS is one of them. That year, the school sent 15 students to Harvard.
BLS, then, is a stepping stone for parents like Henriquez who have their eyes set on the College. When he thinks about BLS, he thinks about Harvard. His tone shifts, insistent, as he recounts the questions constantly on his mind: “‘How many kids are going to Harvard this year?’ In all honesty, I want my daughter to be like you; I want her to go to Harvard.”
But BLS is not without problems. For years, the high school has struggled to accept a diverse student body, in part due to its race-blind admissions practices. Following court-ordered busing in 1974, exam schools including BLS implemented a quota system that mandated accepting black and Hispanic students at a rate of 35 percent. That lasted until the mid-90s, when the parents of two white students rejected by the school filed separate lawsuits within a few years of one another. The two trials forced the schools to stop considering race in their admissions processes.
Enrollment of black and Hispanic students has fallen sharply ever since.
“I was probably the only black person in my AP Physics class and my AP Chem class,” recalls Kaya R. Bos ’20, another BLS alumna. “All the black kids stuck together for the most part — there weren’t that many black kids in general.”
This lack of diversity is not unique to BLS: Derrick Samuels has also noticed a similar disparity at BLA, where his daughter is enrolled.
“This city is filled with minorities,” Derrick says after a pause. “But the three schools…” His voice trails off as he glances upwards, absorbed in thought. We’re sitting in the Samuels’ living room, a cozy and mostly silent space punctuated by the occasional shriek from upstairs, often followed by raucous laughter. Derrick explains that the kids are probably playing Fortnite.
The Samuels have two children: a son midway through a ninth grade at O’Bryant and a daughter in seventh grade at BLA. Directly behind the couch on which Derrick and Rebekah are seated stands a bookshelf adorned with family photos. The Samuels’ son smiles in a baseball uniform; their daughter poses with ballet shoes; the four of them yell on a rollercoaster, eyes wide and arms stretching upwards.
“When I went to BLA to register our daughter for soccer, I noticed it,” Derrick says. “It doesn’t even look like the city when I go into that school.”
BLA is only a few minutes’ walk from the Samuels’ home in Roxbury, a neighborhood in which 94 percent of residents identify as non-white.
Hey! We’re looking for students at Harvard who came through the Boston Public School system, but didn’t go to one of the three exam schools — any chance you know anyone?
Three weeks passed, and the answer to every email, text, and DM we sent was a resounding “No.” Then we received a single link to a single article featuring a single student: Johnny Y. Fang ’20, the first student from his public high school in Chinatown to ever attend Harvard.
Fang’s life story stands apart from the Boston exam school saga. From kindergarten through his senior year of high school, he attended Josiah Quincy School. He did not qualify for the AWC program in third grade, and, though he took the ISEE as a sixth grader, he was not admitted to an exam school.
Fang can name only one other peer currently at Harvard who also came from a non-exam public school in Boston.
Director of Admissions Marlyn E. McGrath ’70-’73 wrote in an email that, in recent years, the College has accepted between 22 and 30 students from Boston public schools each year. She wrote that “those schools have long been a great source of terrific students for us and we value our good relationships with them.”
Asked how many Harvard students hail from exam schools versus non-exam schools, McGrath wrote that it goes against College policy to “provide numbers by school” for privacy reasons. “But I can confirm that we do get very very strong students from non-exam schools, though in smaller numbers,” she clarifies.
Fang said his years at Quincy offered a close-up view of the way exam schools reshape the demographic composition of the city’s other public schools.
“In elementary school, you’d get kids from all different backgrounds — it was just normal,” he recalls. But things changed as students began to test into AWC and the exam schools.
“In fourth grade, they’d get into the AWC program, and pretty much everyone from AWC would get into the exam schools — so quality students would go to BLS, BLA, and the O’Bryant,” Fang says. “The Quincy became mostly just Asian and African-American once you got to the upper school.
“They all seemed to have a lot more work than me,” Fang remembers of his friends at exam schools. “There seemed to be a certain level of rigor that they were getting and I wasn’t.”
One of his friends used to jokingly refer to him as “the uncultured swine,” in part because he had never read any Shakespeare.
“To this day, I still haven’t read Shakespeare,” Fang says. “I wanted to be an English major at Harvard, but I just didn’t have the preparation.”
Instead, Fang chose Anthropology and the Comparative Study of Religion. “Going to high school in the disadvantaged area where I grew up, with a low-income background, with an immigrant background, I thought a lot about the stresses that people lived,” he says, leaning back against the hardwood paneling of the Kirkland House Junior Common Room. “I was trying to acclimate to the culture at Harvard and be a part of the community without losing myself.”
Outside, heavy sheets of rain whip the room’s towering windows. Imposing portraits of powerful, 18th-century white men ring the space, the subjects’ pallid cheeks illuminated by the light of a chandelier.
Fang might have felt less culture shock had he attended BLS, founded one year before Harvard in 1635. Portraits of former headmasters — equally imposing and equally pallid — hang in that school’s auditorium. Inscribed around the building are the names of famous and infamous white alumni: Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Hancock, Charles Sumner.
Often, the students sitting in the BLS auditorium look like the men staring down from the walls.
Belanoff, who is white and has a child at O’Bryant, says she knows what it looks like when students of color are left behind. Originally, her son’s class at the public Hurley K-8 School was around half white and half Hispanic. Other historically marginalized racial groups were also represented. But, by the end of sixth grade, only one white child remained. Some left for the exam schools. Others left for charter schools and private alternatives.
“The kids who are left out of that system really notice it,” Belanoff says. “They wonder, ‘What’s wrong with me and what’s wrong with all these kids who look like me?’”
—Magazine writer Andrew W. D. Aoyama can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewAoyama.
—Magazine writer Vivekae M. Kim can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @vivahkay.