Critics see race inequity in new school assignment plan

Dan Devine | 5/20/2009, 5:50 a.m.
Nearly 200 concerned parents, educators and activists gathered at Roxbury Community College on Thursday, May 14, 2009, for a forum and panel discussion about a proposal to change the way students are assigned to the Boston Public Schools. Critics say it could bring back segregation. (From left): Myriam Ortiz, acting executive director of the Boston Parents Organizing Network; Mary Jo Hetzel of Work 4 Quality Schools/Fight 4 Equity; Nora Toney, president of the Black Educators Alliance of Massachusetts; Sandra McIntosh of Work 4 Quality Schools/Fight 4 Equity; City Councilor Chuck Turner. Tony Irving

Concerned parents, educators and activists packed the student center at Roxbury Community College last Thursday night to discuss a controversial proposal to change the way students are assigned to the Boston Public Schools (BPS) — a proposal that some critics say could open the door to resegregation.

As it stands, families applying for their children to be admitted to city schools for prekindergarten through eighth grade can select a school from one of three “assignment zones,” as well as any school within a certain distance of their home. Under the new plan, first proposed in February, those three territories would be broken into five smaller zones, each encompassing fewer neighborhoods.

In a series of community meetings about the proposal held across the city this month, BPS Superintendent Dr. Carol R. Johnson has trumpeted the “walkable communities” that would be created through the switch to a five-zone plan, saying parents with children in schools closer to their home will be more likely to get involved in the school community.

There’s also a financial incentive to the plan, proponents argue. Sending students to “neighborhood schools” means fewer kids would need transport across the city, theoretically saving the city money on transportation.

Savings of any stripe are crucial for the BPS these days. Facing citywide revenue shortfalls, Johnson in February submitted a scaled-back budget proposal for fiscal year 2010, which cut more than $20 million and 530 jobs out of the system’s spending plan, including more than 200 classroom positions.

Critics claim, however, that the reassignment proposal would handcuff city parents, as smaller assignment zones mean fewer public school options.

“Students need resources,” said Jose Lopez, a member of the Coalition for Equal Quality Education, which organized last Thursday’s meeting. “Right now, we’re shrinking their access to obtain resources.”

But the biggest problem may lie beneath the surface. Opponents say that instituting a policy that emphasizes neighborhood schools could have an overly negative effect on communities of color, possibly even bringing Boston back to an ugly past of “separate but equal” education.

“Let’s not be seduced by the talk of walking to school and neighborhood schools,” said City Councilor Charles C. Yancey. “Let’s call it what it is — segregated schools.”

Nora Toney, principal of the Ellison/Parks Early Education School in Mattapan and president of the Black Educators Alliance of Massachusetts, noted that sending students to schools near their homes doesn’t benefit kids if those schools aren’t up to snuff.

“We’re talking about keeping kids in their neighborhoods and in schools that are not high-quality schools,” she said.

According to the coalition, the reassignment plan would cluster “Commonwealth Priority schools” — the state Department of Education’s term for institutions it deems “underperforming” — in zones 3, 4 and 5. Those zones include a number of neighborhoods with large minority populations, like Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, Jamaica Plain and the South End.

Mary Jo Hetzel, a member of the advocacy group Work 4 Quality Schools/Fight 4 Equity, said the five-zone plan “flies in the face of Boston Public Schools’ own stated goal of reducing the achievement gap” for city students.