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Superintendent to take on school assignment process

Yawu Miller | 12/13/2011, 3:54 p.m.
Boston Public Schools Superintendent Carol Johnson addresses parent activists during a meeting held at the Freedom House and organized by the Boston Parent Organizing Network (BPON), as Executive Director Myriam Ortiz looks on. Johnson says the school department will seek to revamp its school assignment policy next year. Yawu Miller

School Superintendent Carol Johnson will seek input from parents across the city next year as the School Department embarks on an attempt to overhaul the city’s school assignment process.

Speaking during a community forum on school assignment at the Freedom House Saturday, Johnson said the School Department would likely begin the conversation within the next six months.

“There are diverse voices and not everyone agrees,” she said during the forum, which was sponsored by the Boston Parent Organizing Network (BPON). “It’s very important that we come up with a plan and bring it before the community.”

The current school assignment process has been roundly criticized by parents in neighborhoods throughout the city. While many in the white community, including many city councilors, advocate for a return to a neighborhood schools system, where seats in any given school would be reserved for children who live in close proximity, many parents in the black community say they want better choices for their children.

Under the current system, the city is divided into three zones: North, East and West. Half the seats in elementary and middle schools are reserved for children who live within two miles of the school, the other half for parents who live anywhere else in the zone. Parents list their choices for their children’s assignments, then are selected by lottery.

Competition for the better-performing schools can be fierce. And living in close proximity to underperforming schools can make the school assignment process all the more frustrating.

“I want choices,” said Kim Banks, whose daughter is in the 5th grade at the Trotter School. “I’m not going to send my daughter just anywhere. I’m not crazy about the Dearborn.”

But because there are more students than seats in Roxbury and Dorchester, parents in the black and Latino communities often face fewer choices. A neighborhood school is not an option when there aren’t enough seats in the neighborhood school.

At Saturday’s meeting, Johnson said the primary focus for the School Department will continue to be on improving the quality of education in all of the city’s schools.

“I don’t want [school assignment] to distract us from making sure there is a great teacher in every classroom,” she said.

Johnson told attendees that her administration has already made substantial progress.

“Over the last two years, we have 4,000 more students attending schools that are higher performing,” she said.

The School Department achieved its gains in part by increasing the number of seats at high performing schools like the New Mission Charter School, Fenway High School and Another Course to College, according to Johnson.

Johnson said she is not entering into the debate around school assignment with any pre-conceived notions about where the processes will end.

“I don’t have an idea,” she said. “The only idea I have is what’s on the table right now — three zones. I know there are parents who want neighborhood schools. I know that in some neighborhoods they’re not convinced they have the right schools for their children.”