The focus recently on opportunity-to-learn, equity, access to a high-quality education, etc. makes me think about my father. Today would have been his 89th birthday and his entire life was a testament to the importance of access to a quality education and to making the most of that access when it was presented to you.
Access to a quality education may be a right. Taking advantage of it is a responsibility and reaping the benefits of it is a privilege afforded only to those who make the most of the opportunity when it’s offered.
His own educational journey had an inauspicious start. Enrolled in school early so that his mother could work (cleaning houses), his public school career ended abruptly when he bit his kindergarten teacher. The neighborhood Catholic elementary school agreed to take him in, but they didn’t offer kindergarten, so he was a four-year-old first grader.
He found a refuge in school and in the Catholic community center, especially after his father died suddenly when he was 8 years old. His big break came when he was awarded a scholarship to attend Boston College High School, a Jesuit college preparatory school. BC High not only provided an education but exposed him to a middle-class and upper-middle class world that he didn’t know existed outside of his neighborhood.
Graduating high school in 1949 at 16 years old, any thoughts of college were delayed first by service in the Air Force and then by cultural norms. The Italian mother who fought to enroll her four-year-old in the first grade was aghast upon hearing that her now 22-year-old son was going to become a bum (her words), choosing four years of college over a real job. Picture any images you have seen of mothers wailing, weeping, and beating their breasts and double that. So, it was off to the shoe factory.
As I have written, basketball and a selfless Irish priest led him from the factory to a 40-year career as a high school mathematics teacher (plus another 10 as a driving instructor) – and to earning a bachelor’s and master’s degree in the 1960s while teaching and raising two young children.
As a teacher at Don Bosco Technical High School in Boston, he worked with kids from working class families as they acquired skills in printing, cabinetmaking, machine shop, electricity, radio-tv, and later, construction, graphic design, and electronics.
Moving to a suburban public school after earning his master’s degree in the late 1960s, the socioeconomic status of his students may have changed slightly (more as the decades passed by) but their need to understand and appreciate the opportunity offered by a good education didn’t. He never taught the high-level college prep mathematics courses or top-ranked students. For some of his students in late 1960s and early 1970s, the court-ordered choice was clear: another year in high school or a year in Vietnam. For most, however, the long-term value of the business math and algebra for everyday living courses might not have been as clear. Out of the same classroom for the next 30 years, he offered the message of the importance of education and the math that went with it to generations of students.
The same commitment applied to his role as driving instructor. I have a folder with letters from students, parents, and even a couple from the registry of motor vehicles, describing the time and care he took to help students with disabilities (kids with whom nobody else would get in a car) acquire the skills needed to obtain a driver’s license – a certificate that was as necessary and as valuable as their high school diploma in giving them access to jobs, careers, and the opportunity to lead a self-sufficient life.
Of course, his belief in the importance of access to a quality education didn’t apply only to his students.
One morning during the summer I was 5 or 6 years old, my father took me over to his alma mater, Boston College High School. We just walked in like we belonged there. Dad was very good at that. We wandered around, took it all in, and eventually met the priest who was the director of the school. My father introduced us and told him that I was going to go to high school there. They both told me I had to work hard to make that possible. The message to me was clear.
I learned later that BC High was always Plan B. Despite my father’s love of BC High and our strong Catholic roots, Plan A was always Boston Latin School. BLS was the Golden Ticket. The ticket out. BLS opened doors. BLS put you into a Buick – the doctor’s car. Wouldn’t you really rather have a Buick? BLS got you the house in the nicest neighborhoods in or around Boston. Few people entertained the thought leaving Boston. Many of my highly successful high school classmates still think that civilization ends if you get more than 10 miles outside of Boston.
And it wasn’t about BLS as a gateway to Harvard. Harvard wasn’t even on our radar until my senior year of high school. No, the dream was BLS.
As some of my BLS classmates observed last week during a Class of ’77 Zoom call, BLS was the ticket out and up for us – most of us the first generation in our family to attend a four-year college, primarily children from working class or lower middle-class families, some blue-collar, some white collar, albeit most of us with white skin.
Even during our time on Avenue Louis Pasteur in the 70s, BLS struggled to balance excellence and equity, admitting girls for the first time in 1972 and later trying to attain the racial balance mandated by court-ordered desegregation. Achieving both excellence and equity is always hard. As they say, if it were easy everybody would do it.
Most often over the past five decades, approaches to achieving equity at BLS and in other selective institutions have centered on adjustments to admissions policies. That is the case as well with the latest changes to admissions policies for BLS and the other two Boston Public Schools exam schools. A critical difference this time is that the policies adopted by the BPS last week also focus on curing the disease (inadequate opportunities in early childhood and elementary education) as well as on treating the symptom or outcome (inequitable admissions).
Only time will tell if the school department and city are willing and able to do what’s necessary to achieve success on the difficult task of actually achieving equity by improving educational opportunities and not be satisfied at a quick fix to the much simpler problem of adjusting admissions policies to achieve a racial/ethnic balance. I do take comfort in the fact that the city does still have BLS alums within its ranks working to find the solution.