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BPS assignment plan sparks debate on quality choices

Howard Manly
BPS assignment plan sparks debate on quality choices
(Photo: Eric Esteves)

The Boston School Committee approved a new school assignment plan last week that Superintendent Carol Johnson called a bold step forward in ensuring students will attend schools closer to their homes.

By a vote of six to one, the school committee decided to eliminate three citywide assignment zones that the School Department has operated since 1989 to comply with court-ordered desegregation.

The new plan starts in fall 2014 and will allow students currently enrolled in the system to stay at their schools. The plan will also let their younger siblings attend the same school when they enter kindergarten and provide busing — regardless of how far it is — until 2020.

Under the new policy, a computer algorithm developed by Peng Shi, a 24-year-old doctoral student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will generate a list of at least six schools from which parents will be able to choose based on a variety of factors, such as the distance of their residence from school, school capacity and MCAS performance. School officials said that at least four of the school choices will be of medium or high quality.

Superintendent Johnson was not at last week’s hearing because of the recent death of her husband in Memphis, Tenn. But she did offer her support in a three-page letter read before the vote.

“This represents a major step forward for our city,” Johnson said in the prepared statement. “It is a bold plan that strengthens access to quality schools, builds predictability and improves our communities while ensuring our schools can serve them well.”

Johnson also touched on the issue that has triggered significant criticisms by many community groups, minority teachers and parents — the lack of quality schools in every Boston neighborhood.

As it is now, the majority of the city’s low- and under-performing schools are in Dorchester, Roxbury, Mattapan and Jamaica Plain. Without significant improvement in those schools, critics argue that minority students will be disproportionately impacted by the new assignment plan.  

In her statement, Johnson said efforts to improve the academic quality of all of the city’s schools are ongoing.

“Until we can guarantee that every student has equal access to quality, we must keep working on quality,” Johnson said in her statement. “In the meantime, our assignment system must compensate for the current inequitable distribution across the district of our highest quality schools. That is what is fair.”

But fairness is in the eye of the beholder. For members of the Black Educators Alliance of Massachusetts (BEAM) and Kim Janey, the senior project director for the non-profit MA Advocates for Children, the new assignment plan limits choice for students living in neighborhoods with low-performing schools, and thus “limits access to quality education.”

Janey said she did an analysis of the plan and compared two streets, Walnut Avenue in Roxbury and Maple Street in West Roxbury.

On Maple Street, Janey said, K-8th grade students will have a choice of seven schools on their list. Of the seven, six are high-quality, while only one is considered low-quality. But on Walnut Avenue, Janey said, students have a choice of 13 schools, but only three are considered the highest quality, while nine are underperforming.

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.”