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Race to the Top

America's oldest public school, a long-standing paragon of diversity, carries on as affirmative action wanes.

Race to the Top Gallery

The building has "Public Latin School" carved in stone above the front door. The halls are awash with a roiling, rising tide of 12- to 18-year-olds; their faces are open, curious, a melange of colors and races. Many would check the "other" box on a census questionnaire. The 2,300 city kids are chatting, laughing, and flirting -- a sartorially challenged crowd that favors the unisex bagginess of '90s urban fashion. But there are no hats on these heads, no hostile T-shirts, no heavy chains, no Walkmans. No security guards, no metal detectors. Loaded down with books, papers, binders, appointment calendars, these are serious kids who move purposefully, quickly, to their next classes. When the bell sounds, activity ceases and the business of learning takes over. A visitor walking through the hallways will hear about -- in flowing succession -- the vertex of quadratic equations, the conjugation of irregular Latin verbs, the political significance of tort reform, and the moral conundrum of Huck Finn.

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Why does this school feel so very unlike other urban public high schools at the end of the 20th century? In a social and cultural climate that prizes "feeling good about yourself" over real accomplishment and "self-esteem" over hard work, where "differences" become excuses for mediocrity, and where far too many high school graduates cannot read, Boston Latin School stands out as an anomaly. Academically rigorous and intellectually challenging, the 362-year-old educational institution is a meritocracy that rewards achievement and resolutely embraces, even celebrates, the notion that a race is being run, and that some contestants will do better than others. "Excellence in education is not elitist," Head Master Michael Contompasis (class of 1957) told the New York Times. "It is what made America strong."

Legend has it that Harvard College was founded so that the Latin School's graduates would have a suitable place to continue their studies. Five signers of the Declaration of Independence, including Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, and Samuel Adams, were Latin School students. Since 1635, BLS has maintained its undisputed reputation for excellence, surviving the twin "crises" of coeducation and desegregation in the 1970s, and later, fiscal uncertainty, layoffs, accusations of elitism, assaults on traditional education, and political maneuvering. This fall, BLS is emerging from its latest challenge: two years of painful debate and legal disputes over its racial quota system. The result? The new seventh-grade class has close to 20 percent fewer black and Hispanic students than any other class of the past two decades.

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