It has been nearly one year since Tommy Chang took over the reigns of the Boston Public Schools on July 1, 2015, after arriving from Los Angeles. The new School Superintendent’s honeymoon was brief. It came to an abrupt end when Boston Latin School was thrust into the national spotlight by allegations of racial harassment.
The racial tensions boiled over in January when two black students, Meggie Noel and Kylie Webster-Cazeau, made a video on You Tube decrying a culture at Boston Latin that made them feel like second-class citizens. Tommy Chang acknowledged the problem of race at Latin and said it would require input from many to remedy.
“The issues around race, culture, identity are not going to be resolved overnight. That’s why this year at Boston Latin School we had race conversations, race dialogues with students, with parents, and students were leading a lot of those efforts.”
Boston’s School Department investigated multiple charges from students, including this allegation made via You Tube:
“When your white peers are using Facebook and Twitter to put out racial slurs and negative things about students of color and you print out the tweets and give them to your headmaster in a binder and then she does nothing about it.”
One school department investigation found that the bulk of the You Tube allegations were without merit, although the conduct of four students involved was borderline to troubling and was dealt with by school officials.
Nevertheless, there were one hundred incidents of racial or ethnic bias examined by the school department. Investigators determined that Latin administrators had acted “insufficiently” in six of those cases.
It is always best to avoid clichés, but Tommy Chang has no problem embracing this one to describe his experiences in Boston a year into his tenure as superintendent: Boston Latin has been his baptism by fire.
“I wish I can honestly say that I would have anticipated everything as a superintendent of an urban school system,” he said. “You can't anticipate everything, but when issues come up you address them directly. You make decisions guided by a set of values and you make sure that you communicate your decisions as clearly as possible.”
Chang says there will always be bad news in a big city school system—budget cuts, student walkouts—but there’s good news too. Dropout rates are at historic lows, high school graduation rates are up, and so are grades and test scores in some of the most economically ravaged districts. But the city’s academic crown jewel, Boston Latin, remains a nagging and simmering concern, exacerbated by race.
“When I spoke with the faculty at BLS it was very clear to me that they all are committed to making sure that those are issues that are addressed over time, so I am optimistic that we're moving in the right direction”
It doesn’t seem like everyone is moving in the right direction. The fight over Boston Latin has involved the mayor, white, Asian, black and Latino parents and civil rights groups often pitted against each other. Chang bristles at the idea of these racial divisions, but he acknowledges that the next BLS headmaster must be equipped with some very specific skills:
“The next headmaster will need to, number one, understand the history of Boston Latin --needs to have the familiarity with the Boston Latin School community. Number two, the next Headmaster of the school needs to understand that the school must maintain its academic rigor, and number three, if not most important, the next Headmaster also needs to understand how to create a culture at that school that's welcoming to every single student.”
THE FULL INTERVIEW WITH TOMMY CHANG:
A national search for BLS’s next leader will soon be underway. In the interim, Chang has appointed Michael Contompasis [Con-tom-PAH-sis] as temporary headmaster. He held the job before from 1976 to 1998. His tenure began two years into Boston’s violent anti-school busing period, and ended two years after a white father sued to have his daughter admitted to Latin; a lawsuit that effectively led to a dramatic shrinking of the school’s black and Latino student populations. Chang says his appointment of Contompasis is not coincidental.
“Mr. Contompasis not only understands the context of the Boston Latin School over the last five decades, he also himself understands the moment of time that we have now to actually drive some necessary changes.”
But the Boston NAACP has questioned the interim headmaster’s commitment to diversity based on past statements. Civil rights groups on Wednesday called for an overhaul of exam school admission policy. And the US attorney’s office continues to investigate allegations of racial harassment at Boston Latin.
Chang has faced stinging criticism for not meeting with Boston Latin parents. He says he will do that soon. And he is working to recruit more black and Latino kids to study and prepare for the rigorous entrance exams for Latin and the other Boston exam schools, Latin Academy and John D. O’Bryant. The Exam School Initiative based at Latin will increase the number of participants from 450 students to 750 students, and many will come from neighborhoods that are perennially under-represented in the free-study program.
If successful, says Chang, his baptism by fire in Boston will have been well worth it.