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Boston Public schools cites gains with new assignment policy

Martin Desmarais

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.”

Denise Snyder, BPS senior director in the Office of Welcome Services, said that there was some disappointment that more of the incoming kindergarten students did not receive one of their top three choices, which was a main priority for the plan.

“I think that overall there were some good things and there were probably some things that we are going to have to go back and study further to see if we are going to want to make recommendations to the policies,” Snyder said.

She also said that the numbers reflect a good start to get students attending schools closer to home and that some of these numbers are going to be impacted by students choosing to attend schools where their older siblings are already grandfathered in from prior assignments, even if there are choices closer to home. This factor could take several years to shake out and reflect the numbers BPS is hoping for.

“It is good. It is in the right direction. We are going to have to do a lot more, but it is going to take several years to make that better,” Snyder said.

According to Snyder, the success at being able to assign those students who wanted to attend a school in their home base was a major step forward in the success of the new assignment program.

“It is a milestone in a longer journey,” she said. “We have a lot more to take a look at and fix to try and help families get one of those top three choices, but having opened the door to a home-base assignment plan and having implemented it was a real milestone in this journey.”

Kim Janey, senior director at Massachusetts Advocate for Children, has supported BPS efforts to improve the school assignment process and was closely watching the numbers from the first assignment period as well. Like BPS officials, she was disappointed that more entering kindergarten did not receive one of their top choices. But she said the focus going forward should be on the bigger picture.

“The real question is, what kind of choices do families have and what are the quality of choices? There needs to be analysis that examines equitable access to quality,” Janey said.

“For example, under the new system, do families have greater access or less access to quality? How does this compare by neighborhood? If we look at Roxbury compared to West Roxbury — two neighborhoods that had the same list of schools to choose from under the old plan — what would we see? An earlier analysis of the new system showed that West Roxbury families have more high-quality schools to choose from than families in Roxbury. What is BPS doing to address that inequity? What is the plan for quality improvement?”

According to Michael O’Neill, Boston School Committee chair, when the new school assignment plan was adopted it was established that reviews, adjustments and improvements would be made, as needed.

BPS is doing a continued analysis of the data collected from the new school choice plan and will work with the School Effectiveness and Inequality Initiative team at MIT over the next few months to provide an even more detailed report to the Boston School Committee. BPS officials said the report is expected to include details on access to quality and equity metrics, as well as an analysis by neighborhood.

According to information from BPS, in this year’s assignment process, 3,982 students requested kindergarten seats, including students moving up from pre-kindergarten, who had an assignment guarantee. Of those, 3,646 students were assigned to a school they selected, 272 did not receive one of their choices and had requested to be administratively assigned to a school within their home-based choice list. A remaining 64 students did not receive a choice and requested not to be administratively assigned. For both pre-kindergarten and kindergarten, 119 fewer students requested a seat this year than last year. In pre-kindergarten, even with the lower demand, 577 students did not receive an assignment for pre-kindergarten.

BPS also released data from post-registration surveys showing that 85 percent of the families registering understood the new assignment system “well” or “fairly well” before they came to register.

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