Boston Public schools cites gains with new assignment policy

Martin Desmarais | 4/2/2014, 10:44 a.m.

Boston Public Schools got a first look at the numbers from its new home-based, school-choice system and reported that the average distance a new kindergarten student will travel to school next year dropped 18 percent compared to the old plan — from just over a mile to just under a mile.

However, the percentage of incoming kindergarten students who received one of their top choices for a school remained about the same as in the past, at 73 percent compared to 72 percent, historically; and the total number of students who received their top choice school actually dropped slightly from 48.8 percent for this school year to 47.3 percent.

The numbers reflected just the first batch of students who participated in the general student assignment process in the earliest window in January — the first to take part in what BPS is calling its new home-based program. For decades, stemming from Boston’s school busing and desegregation efforts, BPS has used a three-zone assignment system for students to enter new schools for kindergarten, sixth grade and ninth grade. The new program eliminates the three zones and focuses on customized lists for families based on quality and location.

All families now have to use the DiscoverBPS website to select from a list of schools that is generated for them based on their location. Under the plan, families select schools from a customized list of between 10 and 16 schools on average, which is built around a family’s home address. For an incoming kindergarten student, the list includes all schools within one mile and other schools that are added based on MCAS quality to ensure high-quality schools appear on every family’s list.

The new plan was created on the back of a push from former Mayor Thomas Menino, who charged BPS to reduce the distance many students have to travel to school. According to prior BPS estimates, the home-based plan is expected to cut the average distance students travel to school by 40 percent and also give families access to better information about the schools they are interested in and increase the chances of students attending school at one of their top choices.

Though the first numbers only reflect about half the reduction in travel that BPS was hoping for, schools officials are happy with the start.

“We have moved into a dynamic school choice system that is based on quality, and away from the old three-zone system that many families complained was difficult to navigate,” BPS Interim Superintendent John McDonough said in a statement. “The home-based plan offers choices that are closer to home, but there is still room to improve. There is a lot of work to be done to understand whether it has increased equity and access to quality as it was designed to do. Our position as a district continues to be that the best way to increase access to great schools is to raise the quality of all our schools so they truly serve every child well, in every classroom.”