The Long Road to Educational Equality for Boston Students

By Ginette Saimprevil

The Abiel Smith School,  the oldest public school in the U.S. built for the sole purpose of educating African American children, houses the exhibition galleries of the Museum of African American History. Photo by Tim Pierce, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Boston has had an extraordinarily long and tumultuous history as a fulcrum of the fight for the equal education of Black people.

Black Bostonians began petitioning the Massachusetts Legislature for greater access to the public school system in 1787, when our country was young. In 1835, the Abiel Smith School opened—the first building erected for the sole purpose of housing a Black public school. However, conditions in this underfunded, segregated school were below standard, and the Black community continued to campaign for equal educational opportunities. And while public school segregation was officially outlawed in 1855, de facto segregation continued to be the reality in Boston.

In 1965, the Massachusetts Legislature passed the Racial Imbalance Act, which outlawed segregation in public schools and, most significantly, defined segregated schools as those with a student body comprised of more than 50% of a particular racial group. Yet despite this ruling, the Boston School Committee members refused to implement plans to integrate the city’s schools, and the relentless struggle for equal education continued. In 1974, a court-ordered busing plan to end school segregation in Boston resulted in an eruption of protests and violence in the streets, as well as death threats against the judge in the case. Even innocent children being bussed were attacked. Despite the continuation of busing for more than a decade, white flight and a later decision to allow children in residentially segregated areas to attend neighborhood schools resulted in resegregation of many of Boston’s schools. By the 2017-18 school year, more than half of Boston Public Schools were profoundly segregated—even more than in 1965, according to a 2018 report by the Boston Globe. This situation persists to this day.

Boston’s segregated schools, with largely Black and Latinx students, tend to have a higher student-to-teacher ratio as well as older textbooks, lower quality facilities, fewer school counselors per student and other inequalities. This inevitably means that these students will face greater difficulties when it comes to gaining admission to college, completing their degrees and embarking on careers.

Secret sauce

At Bottom Line (BL), we seek to level the playing field by providing students with ongoing, in-person advising from their senior year in high school through college graduation. Our trained, professional advisors deliver intensive, relationship-based, one-on-one advising and partner with students to select and gain admission to a college that is the best possible fit—academically, financially and culturally.

Our access advisors support high school seniors, based on their individual needs, in navigating the college application process using our LEAAD curriculum …

  • List: generating a list of colleges suited to students’ academic and financial situations
  • Essay: brainstorm, writing and editing essays
  • Applications: completing college applications
  • Affordability: securing financial aid and
  • Decision: making a college choice.

Advisors and students review students’ options to select a college that best meets academic, financial and personal needs, with students receiving college transition programming over the summer before their first college year.

The “secret sauce” in the Bottom Line approach is the holistic support—considering the whole student and building authentic relationships through our hybrid model. Our advisors conduct some in person meetings and provide remote support via video, phone and text communication.

In the college access program, students meet with their advisors about 10 times a year. In the success program in college, students are paired with a success advisor who works with them one on one. Advisors offer regular support in the four areas most likely to cause a student to drop out of college: Degree, Employability, Affordability, and Life, or DEAL. This comprehensive support is provided for up to six years or until a student graduates. Our career connections team and advisors provide coaching and support to help students/recent graduates build their social and career capital to launch mobilizing careers. Support includes mock interviewing, resume writing workshops, help securing job shadows and internships, and networking events to prepare students for the workforce.

This work has a significant impact on our students and communities we serve. On average, our students earn nearly double their family income in their first job out of college. Our individualized college access, success and career connections support to students also results in a historic six-year graduation rate of 76% (more than double the national average).

Bottom Line’s model is recognized for its rigorous, externally validated proof-of-impact on college enrollment, persistence and graduation. An independent research report on “The Bottom Line on College Advising: Large Increases in Degree Attainment” confirms the impact of current BL programs and the notable potential for expansion. Researchers found that compared to the controlled group, Bottom Line students are 23% more likely to graduate from college. The researchers also added, “While the observed degree effects are quite consistent across different types of students, the fact that BL primarily serves students of color furthermore suggests that substantial expansion of the BL model could contribute to increased racial equity and mobility in the U.S.”

The estimated impact of advising on bachelor’s degree attainment is roughly as large as the (conditional on aptitude) gap in degree attainment between children from families in the first and fourth quartile of the income distribution.

I know from my personal as well as professional experience that the Bottom Line model works. My family emigrated from Haiti when I was 10 years old. While my parents instilled in me a tradition of diligence and perseverance, they had no experience with higher education and were unable to help me navigate college admissions and financial aid processes. Fortunately, I was introduced to the BL program when I was a high school junior, and my advisor helped me find my way to a full tuition scholarship at Bowdoin College and a fulfilling career helping other students succeed.

Recently, our organization received a $15 million grant from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott. This grant will allow us to accelerate implementation of our strategic plan. This plan partly includes strategies to increase the number of students in Boston, New York City and Chicago, because we know there is a need for educational equity across the nation. The goal is to directly serve 20,000 students as well as reach 400,000 indirectly.

The Abiel Smith School,  the oldest public school in the U.S. built for the sole purpose of educating African American children, now houses the exhibition galleries of the Museum of African American History. The very walls of this historic  building are dedicated to telling the story of the Boston abolitionist movement and equal education. It is an inspiring place to reflect on the  role of education at the core of equality and the continuum of persistence and progress in Boston’s Black community. It is a centuries old story that we hope to play a role in by ensuring that more students of color attain their college degrees.

Ginette Saimprevil is executive director of Bottom Line Massachusetts.


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