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Lawrence Harmon

A wretched move for Latin Academy

By Lawrence Harmon
Globe Columnist / September 7, 2011

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BOSTON NEEDS to attract and retain stable families that are committed to raising and educating their children in the the city. So why is school superintendent Carol Johnson hellbent on destabilizing Boston Latin Academy, one of the city’s best high schools?

The school department proposes to relocate Latin Academy from its central location on the Roxbury-Dorchester line to the shuttered site of Hyde Park High School at the southwestern edge of the city. Completing this risky, three-bank billiard shot, Boston Arts Academy would move into Latin Academy’s space, allowing Fenway High School to expand into the location it currently shares with the arts academy on Ipswich Street in the Back Bay.

Maybe this plan looks compelling on a bureaucrat’s desk. From every other perspective - transportation, enrollment, and public relations - it’s wretched. School department officials are sure to get an earful on the topic tonight when it comes up at a scheduled School Committee meeting at English High School.

Boston boasts three schools for grades 7 to 12 that base admission on a combination of grades and competitive exams - Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and the O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science. They are all that prevent hundreds - perhaps thousands - of families from fleeing to the suburbs. Each exam school is located in or on the edge of Roxbury in the geographic heart of the city. No matter where a student lives in Boston, he or she has a tolerable commute through transit-rich Roxbury.

The proposed move to remote Hyde Park, by contrast, would place Latin Academy beyond the reasonable reach of students in northern neighborhoods like East Boston and Charlestown, as well as outlying western sections like Brighton. Angela Tang, who helps Chinese-speaking parents like herself navigate the school system, told school officials last week that a test run from Brighton Center to Hyde Park required 75 minutes by public transit.

“When will they have the energy to study?’’ she asked. Or time to sleep for that matter, given that Latin Academy starts the day at 7:10 a.m.

The school department contends the move would actually shorten the trip for about half the students; that’s a stretch based on the geographic distribution of students. And for every commute that is marginally shortened from, say, Roslindale, there is another that becomes oppressively long from East Boston.

Superintendent Johnson also insists that the move to Hyde Park would not affect Latin Academy’s current enrollment of 1,700 students. Yet the Hyde Park campus was designed for just 1,100 students, according to school department documents. Perhaps the space could be reconfigured. But an exam school is the last place that should risk reducing seats. And continuity is key to the success of tradition-minded exam schools.

Latin Academy is overshadowed by its better-known cousin, Boston Latin School, which generally admits students with the top test scores on the Independent School Entrance Exam. But Latin Academy - the so-called second exam school - is the system’s true jewel. In teaching quality and academic achievement, it is the equal of the region’s best suburban high schools. Yet it is a city school through and through. Latin Academy athletes, for example, compete in the city league, unlike their counterparts at Boston Latin School, who play in the upscale Dual County League. While Boston Latin School proudly stands apart, Latin Academy is integrated in every sense of the word.

Black and Hispanic students, many of whom live near the Townsend Street campus, comprise nearly half of Latin Academy’s student body. And whites and Asians willingly travel to the school. This still means something in a city where white state workers have resisted relocation plans for their offices to the city’s black Roxbury neighborhood.

Johnson urges Latin Academy parents to look at the bigger picture. The arts academy and Fenway High School are also highly valued by families and deserve room to expand, she said. That’s true enough. But a relatively new school for the arts shouldn’t displace an academic mainstay. And while cramped in its current Fenway location, the arts academy is at least situated close to downtown theaters, dance companies, and conservatories.

“Change is never easy,’’ said Johnson.

In this case, however, it is neither easy nor worthwhile.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at