Alexander Lynn

Jan 19, 2019

5 min read

Researching the Boston Public Schools

Literacy and numeracy development take place in the course of our work in the community

Love In Action newspaper was born at University High School in the course of the implementation of the Community Action Project-Based Learning curriculum. The story of the takeover of the research department of the Boston Public Schools by 14 Love In Action members is a snapshot of this method in action:

As reported by Helena Harding, Shannon Reed, and Andrew Carcerano (tech support for this community newspaper today) in the newspaper’s September, 2002 edition:

A Boston Public School teacher sent us an article he had submitted to the Boston Globe for publication about the recent round of youth-on-youth violence in our communities. His main premise in the article was to show the role of a very poor public education system in creating the conditions for violence among youth. The article had very thorough data to back up his claim that Black and Latino students were being grossly underserved by Boston’s educational system. (“Information and Power, Research into the Boston Public Schools,” Love In Action, September 2002)

The teacher, Steve Fernandez, at that time was a science teacher at Boston Latin School had been active in exposing the “racial gap,” the disparity in educational services between White and Asian American youth, on one hand, and Black and Latino youth on the other. Love In Action members found his arguments lucid and convincing.

The group agreed, however, that there was an important element missing in the analysis. The article telling this story quotes two African American members of the editorial board, Jasmine Sanders and Corey Harper:

I went to South Boston High School. I saw how the ‘well-heeled’ White students would get taken care of — their parents would be down the school advocating for them; they would get what they needed. Not so with the White kids from the projects, places like Old Colony and D Street… Those kids got treated just like us; like they were poor White trash; they got no respect. They were treated almost as badly as we were. These figures [produced by Steve Fernandez] were good, and I believe them. But it leaves out that the poor White kids get treated almost as badly as we do. The system fails them too…

In response Steve Fernandez insisted to this group that he had sought information which would have shed light on disparities related to class rather than only race, but had been turned down by Court Street (Boston Public School headquarters). In fact, in concert with City Counselor Chuck Turner, then Chairman of the Council’s Education Committee, they filed several “Freedom of Information Act” petitions to acquire data showing these class disparities. Thomas Payzant, BPS Superintendent, turned them down.

Hearing this Love In Action then went to Court Street and occupied the 7th floor, the Research Department:

[One official] explained in detail Thomas Payzant’s position with regard to the authority of the Freedom of Information Act in this matter. She explained that the Act covers analyzed data. Therefore, they were able to release the figures they had comparing failure/success with regard to race because they had processed and analyzed the data, put it into graphs and charts, and the like. The data with regard to class and income was not processed, was not analyzed, it was what is called “raw data,” and therefore was not covered by the Freedom of Information Act — they were not required to give it to us.

The group was not satisfied and politely let the administrators know that they were not leaving without the information they sought. As the youth observed, this staff had appeared to have never seen “the public” in this office space before. Some of them looked fairly scared at the specter of 14 Black and Latino youth “from the ‘hood up in their space.”

After a few hours the lead administrator gave up the information: figures showing the difference in scores between students who qualified for free lunch, on one hand — this group would be the lowest income students in the Boston Public Schools — versus figures for the students who did not qualify for free lunch because their incomes were too high. It happened that these two groups split almost dead even down the middle — half of BPS students were very poor income-wise and the other half were not as poor.

What was ultimately revealed by these figures was that students who were poverty stricken (qualified for free lunch) passed the MCAS (state standardized test) at a rate of 59%. The students whose incomes were too high to qualify for free lunch passed the test at a rate of 84%.

This is a disparity in social class. This was a repeat of the findings of the Black Panthers thirty years earlier to the effect that kids who go to school hungry do not do well in school. The Boston Public Schools was guilty of under serving the most poor, half the student population.

It must be admitted that the Love In Action group also “liberated” information (“liberated” was the term used by Black students at Harvard, Tufts University, Boston University and others when they stole food and medical equipment back in the late 1960’s for the Panthers’ Breakfast program and the free medical care programs in Roxbury). Yes, they did lift some very important, and, up until that time, unreleased information regarding the vast disparity in financial support between the exam schools, particularly Boston Latin, and the rest of the “ghetto schools” in the system. These figures were published in Love in Action (September, 2002, p. 17). The most glaring fact to be revealed by the data which they stole off of the desk of one of the administrators was that for every $1 spent on a student at Madison Park High School (the largest high school in Boston with a population of 98% of-Color students and 88% Black), $100 is spent on the middle class and wealthy Boston Latin students (at that time the school was also 85% White — a subsequent lawsuit forced the school to admit students of Color).

Love In Action analyzed the data, a task which the BPS research department had been refusing to do for years, and produced the following table:

Again, this is a 25 point disparity, wholly connected to income.

The data regarding Jack and Jill going up the hill to fetch a pale of water is not compelling young people to want to be journalists, it is not compelling them to learn how to do research — it is compelling them to want to revolt. The result is these young people building their own organizations and supporting this work with newspapers like Love In Action.