‘Stubborn Strictures of Racism, Classism’ Set Will Austin on His PathBy Will Austin
Will Austin: The more I researched and talked to people, the more it became clear this was something I needed to do.
Raised in Dorchester, Will Austin gained entrance to one of Boston’s exam schools at age 11, a move that set him on the path to a teaching career and the establishment of the Boston Schools Fund, a nonprofit that aims to make high-quality schools accessible to all kids.
This is his story:
On a November Saturday in 1989, at age 11, I walked out of my house in Dorchester got in the backseat of our gray Dodge station wagon. My mom was driving me to take the test for one of Boston’s three exam schools. These institutions have great resources and a college placement track record to match. They are public schools, but there’s a catch – you have to take a test to be admitted.
I passed. I went to Boston Latin School, which set me, and my sister, on a life-changing academic and professional path, as we were the first in our family to graduate college.
Years later, as a college student at Harvard University, I began tutoring Boston middle school students through a program started by the mayor of Boston that I and other undergraduates were invited to run.
Surrounded by students of color, as I was in elementary school, I thought back to that morning in 1989 and asked myself some difficult questions. Why weren’t there more kids from my school in that car? At the test? Why weren’t my friends, many of whom had less social capital and a different skin color from me, there?
There could have been seats for four other boys on my street – John, Mike, Matt, and Joel. I was so nervous, it never occurred to me to ask why they weren’t coming. We were the same age. We walked to school together. In the summer, we played baseball or basketball all day and stayed out at night playing hide-and-go-seek.
Matt was the only of the four other boys to graduate high school. John and Mike were both incarcerated by the age of 20 for drug-related and weapons-related offenses. Joel was murdered in 2001.
What separated me from them was a seat at an exam school, which was no accident or good fortune. It was the consequence of a system and culture that provides opportunity and access for some and deprives it from others. The stubborn strictures of racism and classism led me to teach.
Fortune, however, played a role when in 2002 I met John King, the co-founder of Roxbury Prep, a public middle school. Then in its third year, the school was already producing strong student outcomes for Black and Latino students. As my first principal, John coached, mentored, and pushed me to become a more effective teacher and fighter for social justice.
Roxbury Prep became a high-performing school in Massachusetts, one of the first and clearest proof points that racial opportunity gaps can and should be closed in schools. For John, this was just a start; his impact grew far beyond that one school, eventually becoming President Obama’s Secretary of Education.
After serving as a math teacher, the school’s co-director, and overseeing the expansion of Roxbury Prep from one school to a network of four, I found myself thinking again what opportunity a seat in high-quality school meant for a child. I had the chance to speak about this at a conference in May 2014, to make case that the path to excellence and equity in a city was through consistently and dramatically expanding access and opportunity to all good schools – district, charter, and parochial.
Soon afterward, I started getting phone calls. City and philanthropic leaders who heard me speak asked if I would consider doing what I talked about. I shrugged it off at first; Roxbury Prep was a busy place and I had never considered starting an organization. I had just shared a set of ideas and aspirations.
With the nudging and support of many, most importantly the Lynch Foundation, I wrote a business plan on nights and weekends. The more I researched, the more I wrote, and the more I talked to people, the more it became clear to me that this was something I needed to do – and bring a lot of value to the city.
So in 2015, with an anchor commitment from the Lynch Foundation, I launched Boston Schools Fund.
Since then, I and the entire Boston Schools Fund team work every day to get more Boston kids into a school she wants, needs, and deserves. We provide grants and technical assistance to high-performing and high-demand schools to add students. We inform families and caregivers about schools and school options through Boston School Finder, the city’s only comprehensive guide to navigate school selection. We serve as a trusted source to a growing audience that wants to see data and results for Boston’s children, particularly those most marginalized.
I know how much a seat in good school can change someone’s life. I am fortunate to be able to work to provide that opportunity and access for others.
Learn more about Boston Schools Fund.