BPS assignment plan sparks debate on quality choices

Howard Manly | 3/21/2013, noon

The issue of quality choices led one school committee member, John Barros, to vote against the plan.

Barros said he was concerned the algorithm generated choices based on the number of schools rather than the number of quality school seats. Barros pointed out that the two best schools in his Roxbury neighborhood — Hale and Mason — are small with limited seating, but that other areas have larger quality schools, potentially increasing the odds of students in those areas getting in.

“I don’t think supply and demand should be based on school buildings. It should be based on seats,” Barros told reporters in published reports.

The school committee’s decision last Wednesday ends nearly two years of community meetings and hearings on a subject that drew hundreds of parents, educators and elected officials. Mayor Thomas Menino appointed a 27-member advisory committee last year to develop alternatives to the city’s student assignment process.

Menino supported the final plan. The vote, Menino said in a statement, “marks a new day for every child in the City of Boston. A more predictable and equitable student assignment system that emphasizes quality and keeps our children close to home has been a long time coming for our city.”

Menino also explained that improving school quality is an issue to which he is still committed.

“There will always be more work to be done to push all of our schools to be better, and tonight’s vote sets a path forward to make all our schools quality schools of choice,” Menino stated.

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

The old system had 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 said they wanted better choices for their children.

Competition for the better-performing schools was intense. And living in close proximity to underperforming schools made the school assignment process all the more frustrating.

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 are not enough seats in that school.

To some observers, that reality hasn’t changed.

“Everyone agrees that this plan will have a discriminatory impact on the African American and Hispanic youth in this city,” the Rev. Miniard Culpepper, pastor of the Pleasant Hill Baptist Church in Dorchester, told the school committee before its vote. “If that’s the case and this school committee is going to sit here tonight and vote on a plan that has a discriminatory impact on our young people, then what kind of message are we sending? ... When the will of the people is ignored they will rise up.”

Councilor John Connolly, who is running for mayor, also criticized the new plan.

“BPS replaced the current convoluted school lottery with a different convoluted school lottery, and, to make matters worse, they removed walk-zone priority,” he said in a statement. “It is cruel to call this bold reform.’’

The Black Ministerial Alliance of Greater Boston, Inc also weighed in on the new school assignment plan, saying that though it was “less than perfect,” it was better than the existing plan.

“Certainly, the main goal must be to have all of our schools, in every neighborhood, be high quality schools,” BMA Executive Director David Wright wrote in a statement. “Until that time, however, we can’t go back to sentencing the majority of our children to attend poor-quality schools just because of their zip code.”