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Boston schools debut new assignment plan

Martin Desmarais
Boston schools debut new assignment plan
For several decades Boston Public Schools has showcased its schools at a central event each year for parents and students in grades that will be picking a new school for the following year. This year, BPS is holding events at individual schools so families can visit the actual schools they are interested in.

Martin Desmarais

Last weekend, parents visited public schools, talked to teachers and received information to help them decide what school is best for them as part of the Boston Public School department’s new school assignment policy.

The citywide school showcase, new to BPS, was the first of five such events planned over the next few months.

For almost 25 years, Boston schools have showcased their options at one central event at which families and students came to see information and talk to administrators and teachers from different schools — but didn’t actually visit the schools themselves.

According to Denise Snyder, BPS senior director in the Office of Welcome Services, having families and students visit schools across the city is more reflective of the improved school choice program that is now in place for the 2014-2015 school year.

Since 1989, the school department has used a three-zone assignment system for students to enter new schools for kindergarten, sixth grade and ninth grade. Now, BPS has launched what it is calling a home-based program, which 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 (www.discoverbps.org) to select from a list of school that are generated for them based on information they put in.

“The plan really provides opportunity for families to have opportunities much closer to home than they used to,” Snyder said. “It is a completely revamped school choice system from previous years.”

Snyder said the effort comes from Mayor Thomas Menino’s charge to BPS to reduce the distance many students have to travel to school. According to BPS estimates, the home-based plan is expected to cut the average distance students travel to school by 40 percent. The hope is also that it will 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.

The DiscoverBPS website has something called a “fit bar” that is designed to improve the match between students and schools, Snyder points out. “They can use that tool to not just look at their list but to also read about each school,” she said. “They will be able to look at the fit bar and see how much they are looking for is at an individual school.”

While school officials have high hopes for the redesigned website and the requirement that all students register through it, Snyder emphasized the most important thing is for parents to visit schools.

“Families have the opportunity to get to know a little bit about schools from the website and they should take that list and go out and visit. We really, really need families to visit schools,” Snyder said. “You can’t [get to know a school] by sitting at home reading your computer or a piece of paper.”

The school showcase event this past weekend focused on K-8 schools. Because all high schools are still citywide options for students, BPS will continue to have a showcase for all the high schools at one location on one day. This year, that event will be at Madison Park High School on Dec. 5 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. As in past years, principals, teachers and other staff members will be in attendance at this event to answer questions and discuss what the different high schools offer.

However, there will also be four school preview days for all grades K-12 that will allow families to visit a BPS school and meet school teachers and staff. These will be on Dec. 3 from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m.; Dec. 11 from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.; Dec. 19 from 7 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. and Jan. 7 from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.

And if families can’t make these events, Snyder says they can always arrange to visit a school on their own.

Kim Janey, senior director at Massachusetts Advocate for Children, supports BPS efforts to improve the school assignment process. She said that the process has historically been very confusing for families and that the new school choice program may not entirely fix that but certainly shows BPS is working hard to improve the process and get more information out to parents so they can make informed decisions for their children’s schooling.

“I think the school preview day is a good change,” Janey said. “It is very important for families to be in the school and get a feel for it.”

Janey also highly recommends visiting the school at another time — as BPS’ Snyder suggested as well — when the school is in action and students and teachers are present.

While the new school choice program promises to reduce the distance students have to travel to school, which Janey believes is a good thing, she also pointed out that focusing on school proximity could be a challenge for students that have special needs for education and might not find a school that can serve them without looking citywide.

She also worries that families who don’t have easy access to the Internet may fall behind in the school choice process or that others may not be able to keep up with all that is involved.

“It is an awful lot of information to digest, especially for families that are hearing this for the first time,” Janey said.

She also said BPS needs to do a better job of letting families know just how important it is to register their students in January and not wait till later in the year.

BPS first opens registration for those grades picking new schools in January and does the school assignment in a lottery process through several rounds all the way through the start of the next school year in August and September.

“When the assignments are made and if you don’t get into that first round it is going to be very difficult to get that school of your choice,” Janey said.

Snyder agrees and says they tell all those interested in BPS schools, even if they are looking at other options, to register early in January for transition grades kindergarten, sixth and ninth and then in February for all other grades.

“Generally we will see half to two-thirds of the people registering for schools during that time,” she said. “The reality is only the seats that are left over are available for families.

“It is very, very hard for families that come in May or August or September,” she added. “We hope that BPS is one of the viable options they are considering for their children’s education but even if they think of us as a backup they should still register for us in January.”