Sofia Hauser is currently a junior at Brookline High School and has been a part of the Sagamore staff since 2020. During her free time, she likes to bake...
Years of initiatives fail to address racial disparities in Brookline schools
January 5, 2022
The first day of high school brings a potent mix of fear and anticipation. The towering columns framing the main entrance and busy, intense atmosphere intimidate even the bravest freshmen. And yet, year after year, students pour into the building to chase their dreams of higher education. However, Brookline is failing its students of color by many measures.
The racial disparities in the Public Schools of Brookline (PSB) have been evident for many years. In standardized testing scores and overidentification for special education, the inequalities persistently fester.
In the 2018 MCAS results, over 75 percent of white students in 3rd through 8th grade scored in the “Meeting or Exceeding Expectations” categories for the English Language Arts test. Less than 50 percent of African-American students fell within those categories.
The disparity between Latino and White students is also apparent in the 2018 MCAS results, as 51 percent were within the “Meeting or Exceeding Expectations” categories for the English Language Arts test.
Three years later, in the 2021 results from the tests this past spring, the racial disparities have worsened. While the percentage of white students “Meeting or Exceeding Expectations” in the English Language Arts test in 3rd through 8th grade remained the same, the percentage of African-American students “Meeting or Exceeding Expectations” has fallen to 32 percent in the 2021 results. The disparities in the results from the Mathematics MCAS test are even higher. 68 percent of white students achieved a score equal to or higher than “Meeting Expectations”, in comparison to 17 percent of African-American students.
The 2021 results show the continued disparity between White students and Latino students. The percentage of Latino students “Meeting or Exceeding Expectations” is 38 percent for the Mathematics exam and 57 percent for the English Language Arts exam.
In both the 2018 and 2021 results, Asian and Multi-Race, Non-Latino students match or exceed the percentages of white students scoring in the “Meeting or Exceeding Expectations” categories in the Mathematics and English Language Arts tests.
Standardized testing disparities are present across the state of Massachusetts, not only in Brookline. African-American and Latino students from grades three to eight have consistently scored lower on both the Mathematics and English Language Arts MCAS than white students from 2001 to 2021, according to data collected by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE).
Asa Sevelius, principal of Heath, said the impact of racism in the public school system is important to recognize in order to begin comprehensive reforms.
“The history of racism in public schools is very real and we in Brookline are not immune to that long tail of injustice, racism and racial inequality, either purposefully designed or accidentally designed without interruption. We come in with these expectations, either explicit or implicit, that there will be racism at play,” Sevelius said.
MCAS and standardized testing scores only partially highlight the inequalities within the PSB. Overidentification of students of color, especially boys, for extra support is another aspect of the achievement gap.
The process of determining the needs of students, specifically to be addressed with extra support, begins with child study teams. The child study teams usually include an administrator, guidance counselor or social worker, special education teacher, math or reading specialist and a general education teacher. The teams evaluate if a student needs intervention and to what extent it should occur based on a three-tier system. Tier one is baseline classroom instruction without any additional support or intervention.
All students begin in tier one. If a student is falling behind or otherwise struggling in tier one, the student can be moved into tier two where the student can get additional help from the teacher while still in the classroom environment. If the student improves, the team will reevaluate and move the student back into tier one. However, if the student is still continuing to struggle, the team will identify them for tier three intervention. Tier three intervention is still within the classroom but provides a higher level of support to students, like one-on-one instruction.
Overidentification of students happens when students who have needs that could have been addressed in classrooms through the tier system are moved into the special education program. In the PSB, a state study found overidentification for special education happened disproportionately to boys of color, according to Michelle Herman, the PSB Senior Director of Curriculum and Instruction.
Herman said reforming the educational system is a responsibility to be shared.
“Every one of us, from the superintendent right down to every paraprofessional, everybody in the district has a role in it,” Herman said.
With the knowledge of persistent disparities in the educational system, the PSB have taken steps to close the racial achievement gap.
Some of the oldest work the district has done is in the form of the Calculus Project. Beginning in the early 2000s, the PSB has offered African-American and Latino middle school students the opportunity to participate in summer preview courses and after-school tutoring. The opportunities provided by the Calculus Project are designed to close the achievement gap in mathematics by increasing the number of African-American and Latino students in advanced math classes.
Another aim of the Calculus Project was to facilitate a community within the program’s participants to avoid feelings of isolation in higher level classes, according to Jenee Uttaro, Senior Director of Equity.
“There was a clustering of students of color. If you were all on this track to end up taking calculus by your senior year, then that meant that you had to be in certain other classes. And so, there was a tracking so that students could be in that same math class. That’s kind of tied in with African-American Latino Scholars too. It’s not that students of color need those programs, but they’re super helpful for many students,” Uttaro said.
Restructuring the curriculum is a different aspect of equity work in Brookline. “Equity audits” are intended to comb through class materials and determine their continued relevance, according to Uttaro. The audits also bring in new and updated content to classroom libraries which begin to include voices of marginalized groups.
Uttaro said librarians, curriculum coordinators, school leaders and teachers work together to reflect and improve the classroom content taught to students.
“What that looks like is thinking about the new titles that we can bring in and what are the conversations that we can have around how to share these new materials with students and with one another. So it’s not just about, we’re going to change the curriculum, but what are you doing with this curriculum?” Uttaro said.
Challenges to Equity Work
Although the district has implemented some programs to combat the achievement gap, the educational disparities still remain a constant problem plaguing the PSB. The independence of the elementary schools, recent district turnover and past culture hinder the expansion and continuation of equity work.
The decentralization and independence from direct district management that Brookline is known for has mixed results for maintaining programs in the district. While that independence can allow for teachers and administrators to innovate, it can also de-prioritize consistency and uniformity across the PSB.
Sevelius said the distance of the district has allowed him to coordinate efforts within Heath’s community to adapt programs to fit the specific needs of students and parents.
“Central office leadership has tended to have a lot of faith in our decision-making and our practices. And I can only speak for myself because I’m living my own experience. I feel really supported by being left alone, trusted and celebrated,” Sevelius said
The district has experienced grassroots efforts at some schools through the work of Sevelius and others. However, most of these efforts remain separate from each other and work independently, which could lessen the impact of the work, according to Josephine Bouquet, a fourth grade teacher at Driscoll.
“A lot of administrators might have a vision. It’s not a lack of trying based on the facts of the policies and the decisions that they’re making. But the things that I’m seeing my fellow educators struggling with, there is a disconnect both ways,” Bouquet said.
Lesley Ryan Miller, Deputy Superintendent of Teaching and Learning, said ensuring unity and accountability in the PSB will help maintain and start programs.
“It can’t be different. From Pierce, to Lawrence, to Heath, there should be kind of a standard process so everyone knows what that is. But, I think there are other kinds of structures and processes that need to be in place so that we can ensure equitable practices,” Miller said.
Another struggle the district has faced in continuing equity work is turnover in the district’s key positions for reform and turnover with teachers of color. The PSB have transitioned through superintendents and through directors of equity initiatives. Dr. Linus Guillory, the Superintendent of the PSB, has been the sixth in seven years and five of his seven senior team members are either new to the position or the district.
Programs and initiatives that were started have fallen through the cracks, according to Uttaro.
“When you have turnover like that, you lose the thread. You lose track of what the work was, and it almost feels like you have to start over. I do think it’s hard sometimes because for this work, it’s important for people to stay in their jobs to keep it going,” Uttaro said.
Retaining educators of color has been a problem for the PSB because many end up leaving the district, as noted during a Brookline School Committee Meeting this November. Bouquet said the lack of representation negatively impacts minority students and equity.
“If we look at the ratios of students, of different racial backgrounds and of different ethnicities, it’s not proportionate to the educators that they’re seeing, which makes things very challenging. It also makes it hard to have a lot of these really important conversations about race. So many people who I think have the absolute best intentions and such a desire to dig deep into this important work don’t necessarily have the tools or experience to be able to discuss it,” Bouquet said.
The culture of the PSB further plays a role in the challenges with continuing educational equity work. The slow momentum of the work is in part due to a “private school of the public schools” attitude in Brookline, according to Sevelius.
When Sevelius first became principal, he found that under the previous leadership, parents could bend the system to favor their children if they had the right connections. Parents would request meetings with Sevelius in an attempt to persuade him into placing their children into specific teachers’ classrooms. Prospective parents or homeowners could also take guided tours of the school under previous administrations.
Sevelius said those practices led to a culture of elitism and “private” education within Heath, which is in direct contrast with the ideals of equity work.
“To me, that was very abrasive because we are a public school, and to perform as a private school means that we were then performing exclusionary practices. [Private schools] get to select the students who come to the school, they can exclude or include as they desire, but public schools do not have that. We are a public school, and I want to keep that public school mentality. That we are a school for the people and of the people,” Sevelius said.
Dean of Student Support Systems, Brian Poon, said throughout his time at the high school, many programs have seen individual success, but as a whole, creating systemic and cultural change will help increase success rates.
“I’ve been involved with tons of programs at this high school. They are vital and it has to be a culture change expectation. We have to be held accountable in order for the greater metrics to change,” Poon said.
The past cultural attitudes of the PSB have resulted in a clear lack of commitment from the district as a united body. While pockets of programs have been started, the challenge of connecting all parents, teachers and administrators has proven difficult to overcome, according to Herman.
“I think because we haven’t addressed it head on before, or even now, it’s hard to gain the momentum. We have to make the commitment and the commitment needs to be seen by everybody. And I also think we have a ton of stakeholders to engage. We have a community of different stakeholders with the families and it’s an enormous task. I think we have to not be afraid to start the conversation,” Herman said.
To address the lack of progress on raising student achievement within the district, the PSB have begun to consider new methods of closing the achievement gap and prioritizing equity work. Over the summer, Uttaro was appointed the Senior Director of Equity for the townwide district.
Uttaro’s job entails designing professional development for teachers, uniting equity work across the district, identifying causes of racial disparities and leading the district’s efforts in combating those disparities.
“I think part of what my job can be is aligning [initiatives] and giving some coherence and some cohesion to all of these different efforts and making sure we know what we’re doing and that we’re communicating together about it. We’re moving forward on our own personal anti-racism journeys and our personal anti-bias journeys. And as the system and as a community, we’re moving together,” Uttaro said.
Guillory also became the Superintendent over the summer and has begun the processes of creating entry and strategic plans for the district.
The entry plan involves visiting schools around the district to observe and understand the current organization of the district. Guillory began this in July and is expecting to release the findings in February. After the report is released, the strategic plan process will begin, which includes town halls, surveys and meetings to determine the steps to improve the district. The strategic plan will lay milestones and checkpoints in the district for the next five years. The updates about the progress of the work will be regularly shared during Brookline School Committee meetings.
Part of ensuring the success of equity work is taking advantage of Brookline’s resources to amend the system to better address disparities, according to Guillory.
“We’re uniquely positioned to do something by coordinating the rich resources that we have here to best support our students. And so that’s the way that I’m really looking at this as an opportunity to make sure that every kid in our system not only survives, but they thrive. When you are in the phase of thriving, you’re at a different level altogether. That’s my dream, for all of our kids to be at a point where they’re thriving throughout our system,” Guillory said.
Uttaro said the investment and ideas of students will help her determine her plan of action.
“I’m always curious to know what students think and what ideas students have. To me, sometimes the adults have all these plans and they forget to ask the people that this most effects and impacts. So I’m always curious to know what students are thinking, what they’re seeing and what they’re experiencing, because it informs my work,” Uttaro said.
Guillory said working with student groups at the high school is an important way to integrate student voices and ideas into the process of restructuring the district.
“Student voice is critical to this. And so whether it’s through a formal round table conversation, or whether it’s the informal conversations that we have when we’re out visiting schools, we’ll be collecting and seeking that input and direction,” Guillory said. “We’re designing and redesigning the system to make sure that all students are successful.”
Contributed reporting by Luca Kelley Nielsen, Rowan Roudebush and Mila Seifert