Boston exam school acceptance sparks criticism of ‘zip code’ bonus points

The controversial city exam school “zip code” acceptance policy is being defended by outgoing school Superintendent Brenda Cassellius, but not everybody is celebrating.

“We have to do a better job of educating our kids in elementary school so they can pass the exam school test,” said at-large Councilor Erin Murphy.

This all comes, Murphy added, as the state is about to decide if Boston schools should go into receivership.

In an email blast Wednesday evening Cassellius said the new Exam School policy “increased the diversity” of those invited to attend the district’s three exam schools — Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy and the John D. O’Bryant School of Math and Science.

The number of eligible applicants for the exams schools was 1,283 in 7th grade, Boston Public Schools said, with 78% winning acceptance.

BPS added 85% got their first choice, 11% to their second choice school and 4% to their third-choice school.

The Herald was told Wednesday night some students bumped off the exam school carousel because they are not from a low-income household are now “scrambling” to land a costly spot in a private school. That, Murphy says, is a sad reality for many.

But Cassellius argued, “the policy is working as intended.”

“The driving focus of our work at BPS over the past three years has been to increase access to a wide variety of opportunities for all of our students, especially those who have encountered barriers for far too long,” she wrote.

Cassellius is heading out the door with a $314,000 exit package — basically a year’s pay — as Mayor Michelle Wu spends $75,000 to search for a replacement.

Murphy, a former BPS teacher, told the Herald the “zip code” exam school policy is “pitting neighborhood against neighborhood,” where, she explained, some city neighborhoods get “bonus points” and others don’t.

But, she stressed, “we’re already failing black and brown kids by not preparing them to get into exam schools” and pushing back on those who say questioning the new policy is “being racist.”

BPS reports approximately 76% of invitations went to students of color, an increase of 16 percentage points from SY20-21 invitations. Also, students experiencing housing insecurity, in the care of the Department of Children and Families or living in housing owned by the Boston Housing Authority, also saw their chances of landing a coveted exam school seat jump.

“The new admissions policy provides a transformational opportunity for many students to attend our exam schools who otherwise may not have had the chance,” said Jeri Robinson, School Committee Chairperson. “This new policy opens the door for many of our students while still ensuring the high levels of rigor for which the exam schools are known.”

Exam School invitations were sent to students in Grades 7 and 9 on April 29.

Murphy said she was told some parents were contacted this past weekend in an effort to recruit more students to the exam schools.

The 2022-2023 school year for BPS students starts on Sept. 6.