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BPS needs bold approach to ensure quality schools

Boston families eagerly awaited a new plan to assign our children more equitably to seats in the public schools

Kelly Bates | 4/4/2013, noon

Boston families eagerly awaited a new plan to assign our children more equitably to seats in the public schools. The Three Zone system had too many shortcomings, including no assurance that a child would be assigned to a high-quality school in their neighborhood.

The new Home Based student assignment plan adopted by the Boston School Committee and recommended by the External Advisory Committee on School Choice is equally problematic when it comes to the core issue of school quality.

Because of the new plan’s inadequacy, I was one of two from among the 27 advisory committee members to vote against it. I am a proud Boston Public School parent, and the other vote came from a proud Boston public school teacher.

Looking back three years, I was one of the lucky parents who won big under the old plan and the Boston Public School lottery system. My son got into our first-choice school — one with a great reputation, good MCAS scores and teachers, a dynamic curriculum with arts, gym and music, and the strong supports of before and after school.

But in neighborhoods across Boston, such as Hyde Park, Mattapan, Roxbury, Dorchester, South Boston and those with primarily low-income children and children of color, most families are nowhere as lucky.

Many of their schools are failing. The reason is the absence of true quality, which comes down to excellent, well-paid and supported teachers and school leaders, rigorous and dynamic school curricula, strong parental involvement, arts, technology, cultural programming and key supports such as before and after school.

I accept that there is no perfect student assignment plan, but we can do even better than what the Boston School Committee adopted. We need a much bolder approach that will result in a system with consistent high quality, and one that gives teachers and schools the resources and tools to meet their students’ needs.

Improving MCAS scores is one approach, but not the only measure of success. Throwing in a few charter schools surely isn’t enough to change an entire system.

Bottom line, we cannot afford a public education system of the haves and have-nots. A child’s entire future can hinge on the education they receive. All the data prove it. It’s the difference between a great job and a good one; a path to college or a path to prison; access to social opportunities or access to trouble, like drugs, teen pregnancy or violence.

At the final meeting of the External Advisory Committee where the home-based assignment plan was passed, I insisted that our report include a number of recommendations aimed at going the next step. Most important is what should be at the top — to increase academic proficiency across all schools, all grade levels and all students.

School Superintendent Carol Johnson agreed and immediately appointed a quality school advisors team consisting of community members and experts to advise the school district on ways to accelerate student achievement.

Everyone inside and outside government now needs to embrace the goal of high quality schools for everyone and for every neighborhood. It’s a matter of urgency for our children and families in the city.

Student assignment is just that — an assignment process. School quality is really the ultimate issue, and we can’t claim victory in Boston until that is fulfilled.

Kelly Bates is a parent with a child in the Boston Public Schools and a former member of the External Advisory Committee on School Choice. She is an attorney and the Executive Director of the Access Strategies Fund.