Our Miss Brooks was a highly successful comedy series on radio and early television that followed the life and career of a fictional high school English teacher, Connie Brooks. My Miss Brooks, Ann Brooks, was a highly successful teacher of the fifth and sixth grade Advanced Work Class at the Mather School in Dorchester, Massachusetts when I entered her class in the fall of 1969.
The Advanced Work Class (AWC) was, and still is, a program within the Boston Public Schools “that provides an accelerated academic curriculum for highly motivated and academically capable students. Coursework is challenging, and performance standards are high.” According to BPS and borne out by data, a major benefit of the program is “[s]tudents who successfully complete AWC are well prepared to compete for admission to the three BPS exam schools or to other accelerated programs.”
In my 1969 instantiation of the AWC, 20 students from elementary schools throughout Dorchester (the largest “neighborhood” in Boston) were selected to spend 5th and 6th grade in Miss Brooks’ class at the Mather School. There may have been some testing involved in the selection process, perhaps including IQ testing, but I was unaware of that.
The class included 10 girls and 10 boys and we were diverse by Boston/Dorchester standards of the time; that is, there were students from Irish and Italian backgrounds (along with a few other ethnic groups) and the class was 90% white. We were from a mix of blue- and white-collar middle class families. Almost all of the original 20 students completed the two years, but there were a couple of replacements along the way.
From the beginning of the fifth grade, the openly acknowledged goal was that at the end of the two-year program all of us would pass the entrance exam to one of the city’s Latin schools: Boston Latin School (aka Boys Latin) for the boys and Girls Latin for the girls. (The two single-sex grade 7-12 Latin schools became coed as we were entering the eighth grade and remain separate coeducational schools today.)
Although passing the standardized, multiple-choice test administered in the spring of sixth grade was the goal, as I think back there is nothing that I recall from those two years that now would be considered test prep. I am certain that I am forgetting some things through the fog of 50 years. Surely, we must have had some basic English and mathematics lessons. There were quizzes, tests, grades, and lots of homework. Those things, however, were not what defined the class, and they are not what I remember from this pivotal time in my K-12 school career.
It was clear that this was going to be a different experience the moment we walked through the door of Room 8 at the Mather School. For the first time since kindergarten, this was not a classroom with rows of wooden desks bolted to the floor. This room contained shiny modern desks that were arranged around the room in four u-shaped clusters of five, but could be easily rearranged or cleared away, when necessary – and there were plenty of times when it was necessary. And then there was the first class activity.
A boy and girl were selected to stand at the front of the class, introduce themselves to each other and have a conversation. Looking back, we could have gone with where did you go to school last year or what did you do this summer; and sure, we were just weeks removed from minor events like the first moon landing, Woodstock, and Chappaquiddick. But, standing at the front of that class we had nothing but fidgeting and uncomfortable silence. I tried unsuccessfully for two years to talk to that little red-haired girl… No wait, I was the one with red hair and that’s a different Charlie’s story.
Anyway, those first awkward conversations were just the beginning of two years of constant interacting, collaborating, performing, and celebrating with each other. The biggest event was the annual Christmas play our class performed; rehearsals throughout the fall culminating in two school-wide performances – for grades 1-3 and 4-6. These were full performances with hand-painted, wood-frame sets, costumes, and props. Our 5th grade performance of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was followed in the 6th grade with the heart-wrenching The Birds’ Christmas Carol by Kate Douglas Wiggin. (It was at the class Christmas party following the 6th grade performance that I learned that Jeremiah was a bullfrog.)
In addition to the Christmas plays, other examples of special activities included.
- Our class newspaper complete with school and local news, sports, entertainment, and comic sections. Mimeographed copies were widely distributed.
- The Greek festival at the end of our unit on Ancient Greece where we made presentations, displayed the results of our efforts working with wet clay, and most of us had our first taste of feta cheese and baklava.
- Our performance of Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head, in costume, and in French at the annual schoolwide Mother and Daughter night.
- Keeping with the French theme, the end-of-the-year French festival where we tried our hand at making various French dishes and produced a mimeographed collection of recipes. The French custard recipe became a Father’s Day tradition at our house.
All of those activities supplemented the discussions, collaborative projects, and presentations that were a regular part of our daily routine. And we constantly rearranged those desks into various small groups where we pushed, challenged, and supported each other.
In the spring of sixth grade we all passed the standardized entrance exam and were admitted into our respective Latin schools. And six (or seven) years later, most of us graduated from either Boston Latin School or the newly named Boston Latin Academy. We were prepared for the school and not simply for the test.
As I look back on it now, preparing us to succeed at the school was much more important than preparing us for the test because, in reality, the entrance exam was not a high-stakes or high-risk test for us. Yes, the Latin schools were selective and admission was competitive. In the early 1970s, I estimate that there were about 10,000 sixth graders in the Boston Public Schools. If equally divided among boys and girls that would be 5,000 boys competing for the approximately 500 seventh grade seats at Boston Latin.
There was probably little doubt, however, that our carefully selected group of 10 boys would perform in the top 10% of BPS students on the entrance exam. What we didn’t understand at the time was that the hard part was staying in the school and graduating. Although approximately 500 students entered in the seventh grade in 1971 and an additional batch of students entered our class in the ninth grade, our graduating class in 1977 had just over 200 students. During 7th grade orientation we received the Latin school version of look at the boy on your left and the boy on your right, two of you won’t be here by 12th grade.
In 1971, the entrance exam was a broad net, collecting three times as many students as would ultimately graduate. Additional filtering was done at the school. There was a large tolerance for selection error on the test.
The admissions math changed, of course, the very next year when the school became coed, potentially doubling the pool of applicants. It changed again as enrollment in the Boston Public Schools dwindled and a much greater portion of the Latin School class came from private elementary schools. And at some point in the intervening years, the admissions philosophy changed. The goal was to do what was necessary to ensure that all admitted students had the opportunity to make it to graduation. Last year, Boston Latin had 417 seventh grade students and 412 twelfth grade students.
All of the changes described above raise the stakes associated with the entrance exam. I wonder what the impact has been on the Advanced Work Class.