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Collaborating to Expand Access to Boston's Exam Schools

Collaborating to Expand Access to Boston's Exam Schools

In the city of Boston, three highly selective public schools, known as Boston’s “exam schools,” have offered generations of middle and high school students with top grades and standardized entrance exam scores the opportunity to obtain an education on par with that of private schools. Although the schools are lauded for their excellence, critics claim the entrance process has, over time, deepened inequities in the school system and the local community.

The entrance process had relied on a combination of grades and scores on an entrance exam. Yet, when COVID-19 cases surged in the city in the fall of 2020, students could not take the entrance exam. The Boston School Committee suspended the exam for the 2021–2022 school year, instituting a temporary selection process based on grade point average, and utilizing student zip codes to determine the order in which admissions offers would be extended. The first 20% of exam school seats would be earmarked for the top students based on GPA, and the remainder would be distributed proportionally among high performing students in each zip code in the city based on its share of the school-age population.

Shortly before invitations were to be sent to students, a coalition representing 14 white and Asian American students and their parents sought a court order to stop the plan. Their February 2021 lawsuit claimed the plan was racially discriminatory, in violation of both the US Constitution and state law, because of its reliance on zip codes in admissions decisions.

Seeking to intervene in the case in support of the plan, the NAACP Boston Branch turned to Sue Finegan, the Chair of Mintz’s Pro Bono Committee, for assistance. Attorney Mathilda McGee-Tubb also learned that Lawyers for Civil Rights (LCR), where she serves on the board, would be representing other intervenors and was looking for a partner law firm. Ultimately, Mintz served as co-counsel with LCR, Greater Boston Legal Services, and the law firm Sidley Austin in representing a diverse group of intervenors. These included the Boston NAACP, the Greater Boston Latino Network, and the Asian Pacific Islander Civic Action Network, along with a parent and an unnamed student.

“It was a true honor for Mintz to collaborate with this group of co-counsel, and to ensure that other families and communities impacted by the School Committee’s plan had their voices heard by the court,” Mathilda said.

Throughout the case, Sue and Mathilda advised on strategy and worked quickly to help draft filings and prepare talking points for the oral arguments, which were held less than six weeks after the case filing. Attorneys Jason Burrell, Amanda Clairmont, Audrey McQuade, and Laura Martin assisted with research, including looking into the legal grounds their clients could use to intervene. Jason, who also gathered facts to provide the court with historical information about the Boston school system, said it was “a privilege to work on a case that impacted thousands of students who might have the ability to go to an exam school.”

In mid-April, the judge held the plan to be a race-neutral system, not motivated by the School Committee’s goal for a more racially representative student body. When the plaintiff appealed, attorney Andy Nathanson stepped in to help counter the motion to stop the plan’s implementation during the appeal process. The First Circuit Court of Appeals’ decisive denial of the motion to stay the implementation pending appeal later that month was an important victory for low-income children, he said.

“It was a vindication of a process creating greater diversity in the school system,” Andy said.

The district court judge later withdrew his opinion based on revelations of racially charged text messages between school committee members that were not part of the court record, but then later reaffirmed his ruling. Although critical of the officials’ lack of diligence, the judge noted that the new evidence wasn’t likely to change the result if the court were to grant a new trial.

We were honored to work with the NAACP and other intervenors to ensure there was an equitable method to allow students to get access to the schools known as examination schools,” Sue said.

Amid the court battle and debate about the issues, the Boston School Committee adopted a new exam school admission process, beginning with the 2023–2024 school year, based 70% on grades and 30% on admissions exam scores, with additional points awarded to applicants who face certain disadvantages. The appeal of the district court’s ruling is still pending in the First Circuit.

Transcending 2021

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