Latin School site, School St., Boston, MA Freedom Trail

What should feel like a major accomplishment—getting accepted into an elite public high school—can quickly go downhill if, as a student, you’re subjected to racial slurs, racial hostilities, and racist attitudes and behaviors. That is the reality for some Black and Latino students in the country’s most selective public high schools. And as the push to diversify these schools takes precedence, inadequate attention is given to creating school cultures that nurture and support students from all ethnic and racial backgrounds.

I looked at how racial conflict is affecting students at America’s most prestigious and sought-after public high schools—and what school leaders and staff can do to address this issue.

Balancing the underrepresentation of his culture inside school with cultural pride outside school is something that Matthew Mata, a Latino senior at Chicago’s Walter Payton College Preparatory High School, navigates daily. Throughout his high-school years he says he’s witnessed the equivalent of what was reported at Boston Latin. “The fact that only a few Latinos get the opportunity to receive a fully resourced education [which means] extracting me from my culture … and people who I can easily identify with” only accelerates racial tensions, said Mata, who travels from an “artistic Mexican neighborhood” to attend one of the most selective schools in the city.

To better meet the needs of its students of color, Payton hired a director of student engagement and formed a club—Payton People of Color—as a place to talk through racial and social issues affecting students. Mata sees it as an attempt to be more inclusive, but believes a club can only reap limited benefits: “There shouldn’t need to be a club so students feel safe [but instead] classroom environments where they feel safe.” He added that what elite schools like his need are opportunities for school staff to grow in their racial and cultural consciousness, through student testimonials and mandatory teach-ins on racism. “I believe that in order to confront an oppressive system, you must at times confront [administrators and teachers] with uncomfortable conversations to hopefully get your message across.”

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