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Boston parents select schools under new assign plan

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the Banner’s senior editor. VIEW BIO
Boston parents select schools under new assign plan
The Nathan Hale School in Roxbury is a Tier 1 school, meaning students there score in the top 25 percent on the MCAS test.

Parents of school-age children in Boston begin the process of selecting schools under the Boston Public Schools’ new assignment policy this week.

Under the new system, the school department will generate a list of at least six choices for each family based on their home address with a bias toward local schools. The new plan will include at least two schools in the BPS Tier 1 or Tier 2 category, the top two levels of school performance.

The best way for parents to obtain a seat in the school of their choice is to register their child in January, when the new process begins. The school department is in the midst of an aggressive effort to publicize the enrollment process, using letters to parents, radio spots and billboard ads, according to BPS Spokesman Brian Ballou.

“Our welcome centers are open for parents to come in and ask about the registration process,” he said.

The challenge for many parents of prospective BPS children will be to secure placement in a school that’s not in the bottom two tiers of the school department’s ranking system: Tier 3, where more than 50 percent of the students scored lower than proficient on the MCAS exam, or Tier 4, where fewer than 25 percent scored proficient.

Because of the new system’s bias toward placing students in schools close their home address, parents living in low-income neighborhoods where schools in the bottom two tiers are concentrated may now have reduced chances of placing their children in higher-performing schools, advocates say.

Using the DiscoverBPS website, parents can check the options available to their children by adding in their addresses. For a random address on Walnut Avenue in Roxbury, the tool generated 19 possible schools, five — little more than a quarter — were in the top two tiers. In contrast, the website generated 13 schools for a random address on Maple Lane in West Roxbury with six — nearly half — in the top two tiers.

Last year, because Roxbury and West Roxbury were in the same school zone, parents from Roxbury could enter the lottery for schools in West Roxbury. Because the new system limits parents’ choices to those schools closest to their home addresses, some parent advocates are concerned the new system will exacerbate the inequities in Boston’s schools.

“We have to make sure we’re not locking families into under-performing schools,” says Kim Janey, a senior project director at Mass Advocates for Children. “School reform has to be about more than assignment, because school assignment doesn’t approach equity. It just determines who has access.”

And access is never guaranteed, notes Myriam Ortiz, executive director of the Boston Parent Organizing Project.

“When you see a school among your choices, it doesn’t mean you’re going to get a seat there,” she says. “It doesn’t mean there are seats available. It just means you can apply.”

With the increased emphasis on proximity added into the school choice equation, the chances for applicants in lower-income neighborhoods to obtain seats in top-tier schools may be even slimmer than they appear. The Nathan Hale School, a Tier 1 school in Roxbury, has 168 seats. The Beethoven School, a Tier 1 school in West Roxbury, has 306 seats.

The distinction between choices and availablity of seats is at the crux of concerns many parent advocates have around the process. Former school committee member John Barros advocated a school assignment system where each child was guaranteed access to the same number of seats in top-tier schools. His measure was not adopted.

Ballou says BPS is working to erase the disparities in educational opportunities between neighborhoods.

“We’re trying to increase the number of higher level schools everywhere,” he said. “That’s something that’s going to happen over time.”

One reason children in lower-income neighborhoods are concentrated in low-performing schools is because fewer parents in lower-income neighborhoods actually participate in the school lottery system, advocates say.

If parents do not select a school, the department makes what is called an administrative assignment, usually sending the child to the closest school with an available seat. The schools with the greatest number of available seats are those least selected by parents who participate in the school assignment process, and therefore tend to be among the lowest-performing schools in the system.

“If you’re not on top of it, you’re going to be assigned to an underperforming school,” Janey says.

An end to busing?

When former Mayor Thomas Menino announced plans to revamp the city’s school assignment policy, he told Bostonians the new system would encourage parents to send their children to schools closer to home. Under the new plan, proximity to the student’s home address is a driving factor in the algorithm that selects school choices for parents.

For the Walnut Ave. address plugged into the department’s DiscoverBPS website, 14 of the 19 schools selected were within one mile. Each school listed within that one-mile radius is marked with a pedestrian symbol, indicating it’s in a walk-to-school zone.

Proximity may not be a plus for every parent, notes Ortiz.

“They should actually use a different symbol,” notes Mia Johnson, a middle school parent whose seventh grader has a mile-and-a-half walk from Dorchester to the Mission Hill K-8 school. “What that means is you won’t have transportation.”

For example, there is no direct bus route from Walnut Avenue to the Martin Luther King K-8 school .95 miles away on Lawrence Avenue in Dorchester. A parent walking their kindergartener from that address could take the 44 Humboldt bus to Dudley Square, then take the 45 Ashmont bus up Blue Hill Avenue to Lawrence Avenue. Not counting for the slow pace of a toddler, Google Maps estimates the walk time at 23 minutes.

Ortiz says some working parents may select farther away schools, opting for bus service over the walk.

Ballou says it’s too early to tell how much BPS will save on transportation costs, but he anticipates that the savings will be “significant.”

Past estimates have put the savings from instituting walk-to schools policies as high as $6 million. The total transportation budget for BPS is more than $100 million. Savings on kindergarten and elementary education notwithstanding, the department will still be required to bus special needs children, children attending citywide schools, charter schools, pilot schools and private schools.

Additionally, some public high schools have student attendance in excess of the MBTA’s capacity to serve. West Roxbury High School, for example, runs buses from the Forest Hills Orange Line station to its campus, which is several hundred yards from the West Roxbury/Dedham line.

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