On paper, Rachel Singh and Shanika Bridges-King have led parallel lives.
Both women graduated as valedictorians from Boston public schools in 2006. Both went to elite private colleges and today work as elementary school teachers. But if their resumes are similar, their biographies are starkly different. They tell the story of Boston’s two-tier school system — one excellent, one mediocre — that forces some students to overcome a host of systemic obstacles while offering others a clear path to success.
The system seems custom built for people like Singh, the motivated daughter of middle-class Indian immigrants. She grew up in an orderly neighborhood of single-family homes near the Newton line, attended a majority-white elementary school, and scored high enough on a special test to enroll at the rigorous Boston Latin Academy, one of the city’s three exam schools — along with Boston Latin School and John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science — where almost everyone goes on to a four-year college.
Bridges-King, by contrast, never even heard about the test. She spent her turbulent childhood in public housing, navigating some of the city’s poorest lower-grade schools before attending one of the state’s most underperforming high schools — Boston English — where one teacher succinctly described the gulf separating her valedictorian performance from students at the city’s top exam school: “She said my GPA didn’t mean much compared to kids at Latin.”
The message was clear: At a high school where only about a quarter of students go on to a four-year college, even a standout like Bridges-King wasn’t really outstanding. It’s one of Boston’s enduring paradoxes: A city that prides itself on being the “Athens of America” has for decades cultivated a lopsided public school system. On one track, shrewd parents like Singh’s ably navigate the city’s elite schools to ensure that their children receive one of the finest public educations in the country. On the other, children from families that lack savvy, like Bridges-King’s, often find themselves funneled into some of the state’s least effective classrooms.
It’s hard to overstate the chasm that divides the city’s exam schools from the rest of the district. Not only do students at the three schools outperform their peers on standardized tests, but by some measures, the schools are ranked among the top 10 public high schools in the state. By comparison, none of the district’s other 30 or so high schools even ranks in the top 50. Students at these schools need more than just good grades to keep up with their exam school peers: They need grit, a willingness to sacrifice, and, with slim margins of error, more than a little luck.
At the heart of this vast opportunity gap lies the elective entrance exam, first offered to Boston sixth-graders, that separates the city’s educational winners — who are often white or Asian — from the rest of the district, which is mainly black and Latino. A recent study found that, unlike white and Asian students, the overwhelming majority of black and Latino students did not take the test.
The result is a school system deeply divided along racial lines. White and Asian students, who account for less than a quarter of the city’s public school students, made up nearly 75 percent of all seventh-graders entering the flagship Boston Latin School during the 2017-2018 academic year.
“For those in the know, there’s a pipeline to the best schools, the best opportunities, and best resources,” said Matt Cregor, an attorney who has advocated for greater equity at BPS. “It’s been said that students at [Boston Latin] are not our best and brightest, but our most prepared. That statement is pretty reflective of how our system works as a whole.”
The racial imbalance recalls the era of segregation before federal Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr.’s controversial 1974 order to integrate city schools, busing black students to white schools and vice versa. In the 45 years since, middle-class families, mostly white, have largely fled city schools, helping cut the number of public school students nearly in half.
Meanwhile, the exam school population has grown by more than 1,200, as the remaining whites and more recently arrived Asians have crowded their ranks. Today, nearly 25 percent of district high school students attend an exam school, an extraordinarily high percentage compared with most cities. By contrast, fewer than 5 percent of public high schoolers in New York attend selective enrollment schools.
The heavy reliance on the exam school model allows more students to enroll in Boston’s best schools, but critics charge it does so at the expense of everyone else. Students at the district’s other schools are segregated from many of their most ambitious peers, grouped instead with a disproportionately large number of high needs and economically disadvantaged students.
“You’ve created a very segregated system off the bat,” said Dan French, executive director of the Center for Collaborative Education. “It’s very tough, when you lose that [many high-achieving students], for the other high schools to create the desired integrated mix of kids that makes for successful schools.”
That is not to say the best students from non-exam schools can’t beat the odds and win acceptance to elite colleges, but it’s uncommon, especially compared with top exam school graduates. Five of the eight exam school valedictorians from 2005 to 2007 interviewed by the Globe attended Harvard University. By comparison, just three of the more than 80 non-exam BPS valedictorians interviewed by the Globe attended Ivy League schools, none of them Harvard.
For Bridges-King, who became the first in her family to attend college when she enrolled at Bryn Mawr College, a distinguished private school in Pennsylvania, the clear aim of higher education was to escape the gravitational pull of generational poverty and family dysfunction.
“My whole goal was to work really hard to get out of this environment and escape my family,” said Bridges-King, who earned a full-tuition scholarship from Bryn Mawr after being selected by the nonprofit Posse Foundation, which recruits students with strong leadership potential.
For Singh, who entered Harvard in 2006, the path forward was similarly transparent: “The name of the game was getting into Harvard. It was very clear.”
The middle of seven children, Bridges-King grew up in the old Bromley-Heath projects in Jamaica Plain, where her family slept four to a room. Her father was a rare presence. Her mother worked long hours as a parking attendant, leaving Bridges-King to bounce between a neighborhood youth center and her grandmother’s nearby apartment.
“Grandma would always make sure that we at least had noodles or something to eat,” recalled Bridges-King. “It was kind of like a village raising a family.”
Violence often engulfed her old neighborhood, and she vividly recalled being kept indoors when gangs would churn through the complex. Home life could be similarly unsettled. She spent a year in the foster system, and a later eviction forced the family to live in her grandmother’s living room.
“There were probably 12 of us in that apartment,” said Bridges-King. “There were like nine of us on one huge king-size mattress.”
School was a refuge, and Bridges-King soon became one of the top students in her class — first at the old James M. Curley elementary and later at the Phillis Wheatley Middle School in Roxbury.
“I never was at home,” said Bridges-King, who participated in many after-school programs. “I knew there was nothing back at home but to go lay down on that mattress.”
All that work and academic achievement impressed her teachers at Wheatley, who urged her to enroll in private school.
“They actually applied to schools for me without my mom knowing,” said Bridges-King, who chose to stay in the district because the thought of private school was “too scary.”
As it turned out, there was another escape route for promising young students like Bridges-King: an exam first given to third-graders that might have placed her in Advanced Work Class, a pipeline to the exam schools. But Bridges-King doesn’t recall taking the test, only becoming aware of it years later when she had BPS students of her own.
“I had to test my kids,” she recalled. “I was like: What is this for?”
Bridges-King was not alone among African-Americans in missing out on the program. Though Advanced Work was created in part to help expand access for all students, the program has been dominated in recent years by white and Asian students, who accounted for 60 percent of all AWC seats during the 2013-2014 academic year, according to BPS. (School officials point out that they’ve improved access to accelerated courses lately by setting up new programs in 16 elementary schools that are open to all.)
Despite their shortcomings, the Curley and Wheatley schools provided refuge for Bridges-King. “Wheatley was home, because I didn’t want to be in this particular household,” Bridges-King said while touring her old housing complex. It was also where she said she met her first black teacher. “It was like, ‘Oh, I can be someone.’ I don’t know who, but she was someone, and she believed in me.”
Life at English High, however, would be different — a lesson she says she learned just three weeks into her freshman year.
“It’s survival of the fittest,” said Bridges-King, who recalled how upperclassmen would pull fire alarms and attack younger students in the ensuing chaos. “One girl, the whole two front teeth got knocked out because she’d been beaten with a padlock.”
Though the family eventually got their own place — and Bridges-King her own room — home life remained difficult. She ultimately purchased a small refrigerator for her bedroom to reduce contact with her family.
“I made sure I had whatever I needed in there, my lunch meat, whatever I needed,” she recalled. “There was no point in leaving my room.”
As Bridges-King was entering high school, Rachel Singh was starting her third year at Latin Academy. She’d spent her early years at the majority-white Burr Elementary School in Newton courtesy of METCO, a state-funded program that enables Boston students to attend schools outside their home districts.
The system “didn’t make it easy, but they went to a good school,” said Singh’s mother, Meena Singh, who often drove 30 minutes to take Rachel and her brother to school. “They got excellent educations.”
Unlike her more affluent classmates, Singh grew up sharing a bedroom with her older brother in the family’s modest two-bedroom apartment in the Boston section of Chestnut Hill. Nevertheless, she felt at home among her Newton classmates, joining a mother-daughter reading group, singing in chorus, and participating in school theater productions.
“I think I knew my parents made less money than my peers,” recalled Singh, who said she was comfortable at the enormous homes of some of her Newton classmates. “But I knew I wasn’t normal. They were normal.”
When Singh tested into Latin Academy in 1999, exam school admissions were undergoing a dramatic transformation that ended the practice of reserving 35 percent of all seats for minority students. The new race-blind policy — still used today — bases admission chiefly on grades and test scores, which has led to an increase in the number of white and Asian students at the elite Boston Latin School. Meanwhile, the percentage of black and Latino students has declined, accounting for just 22 percent of all seventh-graders entering Latin in the 2017-2018 academic year.
A big part of the imbalance reflects who takes the voluntary entrance exam — and who doesn’t. In recent years, more than 60 percent of white students in Boston and nearly 80 percent of Asians took the test, according to a recent report. By contrast, just more than 25 percent of black and Latino students took the exam.
School officials said they hope to ease the disparities next fall when they begin offering the test to sixth-graders at their home school during the school week. But that won’t address a second driver of racial imbalance: the built-in edge of children with engaged parents who know the right lower-grade schools or can afford to pay nearly $2,000 for private test-prep tutoring.
“There are parents who are planning for exam school admission when their children are still in diapers,” said City Councilor Kim Janey, a critic of the exam school admission process. “There are others who don’t even know there’s a special exam.”
Laura Perille, the interim superintendent, said the district is combating some of these imbalances by expanding access to both accelerated courses and a free test-prep program, but she acknowledged there’s still a long way to go.
“There is no question that we need to do more to [offer] opportunities for all our students,” she said. “I think that’s the path we’re on.”
Singh had always been a decent student, but she became singularly focused on college admissions at Latin Academy, where she rounded out her resume by tutoring other students, running track, and becoming a leader in the school’s Classics Club, an extracurricular group devoted to classical antiquity. She talked ceaselessly with friends about college applications. The family discussed the benefits and risks of early admission, but it was the daughter of a family friend who gave her the insider’s edge her less well-connected peers might have lacked: She joked that her college essay was about all the lies she tells.
Ah, the personal essay has to be funny, Singh recalled thinking. “Let me tell you all the things I’m not good at, because my application will show you everything I am good at.” Her essay, which she worked on in AP English and which detailed her physical clumsiness, was titled “Graceless.” She sent it to nearly a dozen schools, several Ivies among them. It worked: Singh got into nearly every school on her list.
Rachel Singh and Shanika Bridges-King both ended up back in Boston public schools after college, this time as teachers. When they met at the Boston Teacher Residency graduate program, they realized they had both been valedictorians four years earlier. They had something else in common, too: Both women had found college challenging.
“Being valedictorian, it didn’t mean anything,” said Bridges-King, who initially struggled to adjust socially at Bryn Mawr as she overcame the deficits of her Boston education. “I didn’t understand anything I read. I didn’t know how to write. I felt like I was disabled in this elite environment.”
Singh, for all her academic preparedness, had her own struggles at Harvard.
“I wasn’t as prepared,” said Singh, who added that many of her classmates seemed at home after studying at elite private schools. “They taught their students how to be intellectuals and engage in discussion and writing. I felt like I was an intellectual, but the work I was doing at Boston Latin [Academy] was not that work.”
Bridges-King eventually learned to navigate campus life, spending a formative year in England and later doing an independent study with the Philadelphia schools. Still, as a sociology major, she labored to square what she was learning with her lived experience.
“I would tell my professors: ‘There’s no way I see myself within these texts, because all it states is that people like me can’t survive and I shouldn’t be where I am today,’ ” she recalled. “I struggled with that, but I also challenged a lot of theories.”
Singh, meanwhile, chafed against her academic setting as well, feeling her classes were far removed from the world’s more pressing concerns.
“There were urgent problems in our world, and I wanted to be working on them,” said Singh, who was inspired to major in social studies after she began tutoring at a prison. “Once I was able to tie that to my coursework I had a much better time.”
Singh, who first taught in BPS but later moved to Maine with her partner, now teaches first grade in Bar Harbor. She enjoys the work, but she remains deeply ambivalent about leaving Boston, where she was passionate about helping to close the achievement gap at BPS.
“Maybe there’s a right decision and a wrong decision,” said Singh, who said she still misses her hometown. “Sometimes I feel like that’s where I’m supposed to be.”
Bridges-King, meanwhile, has also left the district, but for different reasons.
“There were a lot of things that made me not believe in the educational system while working at BPS,” she said. “There’s a lot of trial and error, and not enough putting time into figuring out what really works.”
Today, she’s raising her daughter alone and teaching fifth grade at a charter school in Boston. She hopes to enroll in a doctoral program and inspire her daughter to conquer the many obstacles she herself has had to overcome. Still, the pull of the past remains strong, sometimes nearly unbearable.
“My biggest obstacle is trying to maintain this growth mind-set, and not feeling that I’m guilty of leaving behind family members,” she said, describing her struggles to realize her personal and professional ambitions. “I feel like I’m tied between two worlds.”
Malcolm Gay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @malcolmgay. Meghan Irons can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter on @MeghanIrons. Follow Eric Moskowitz on Twitter @elmoskowitz.