Panel explores "Race and the Achievement Gap" in Boston schools

Issue July/August 2006

More than 100 people attended an informative and lively panel on "Race and the Achievement Gap in the Boston Public Schools" on June 1 that examined what can be done to improve disparities in the quality of public education.

The program, which was at capacity in the Massachusetts Bar Association's conference room at 20 West St. in Boston, was jointly sponsored by the Rosa Parks and Women in Color Committees of the Women's Bar Association of Massachusetts, the MBA and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

The program featured substantive and provocative questions and comments from a diverse audience, including students from the Boston Public Schools. The four panelists discussed the crucial issue of race/education and equality from different aspects.

• Anne Wheelock, an education policy analyst and education reform expert presented data on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) as well as dropout rates, particularly high among students of color.

• Steve Fernandez, a physics teacher at the John D. O'Bryant School of Mathematics and Science and a member of Work-4-Quality/Fight-4-Equity, a Boston community group active in the fight for high quality schools, related his experiences in the classroom and successes working with young people.

• Sandra McIntosh, an English High parent coordinator and co-chair of the of Work-4-Quality/Fight-4-Equity, spoke of her experiences as a parent of a child in the Boston Public Schools and as an administrator at one of these schools. She explored the inequities in tracking and/or going back to so-called "community schools."

• The program ended with community activist and Boston City Counselor Chuck Turner, who posed the question of how to achieve equality in education in a political context.

"We're doing a bad job in the schools in Boston and probably nationwide," said Fernandez, who noted that kids are turned off by sitting in classroom chairs and being threatened with tests on subjects they have no interest in.

While there are some "slight differences" in how students from different cultural and socio-economic situations test early on, Fernandez said, but "By the time they're in high school, (the differences are) huge. They get more and more marginalized."

The program was moderated by Nadine Cohen, a lawyer at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law of the Boston Bar Association, and Sabrina Acloque, an AmeriCorps paralegal at Greater Boston Legal Services and a 2000 graduate of Boston Latin School. Cohen has spent more than two decades as a civil rights lawyer involved in controversial fights for equality and social justice

The program's large turnout highlighted how much work is needed to achieve equality in public education to fulfill the promises of the Constitution to full racial equality and social justice. Participants expressed the desire to continue working on race and education, and the WBA committees hoped to present a follow-up program in the fall.