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Researchers tackle BPS school assignment system equity as many clamor for answers

Jule Pattison-Gordon
Researchers tackle BPS school assignment system equity as many clamor for answers
Left to right: Harvard’s Nancy Hill, BPS’ Kim Rice and Harvard’s Kelley Fong were among panelists speaking at the Boston University Initiative on Cities headquarters.

Two years in, the impact of Boston Public School’s relatively-new school assignment system has yet to be fully assessed, and the Boston Compact is pushing for significant modifications. Against this backdrop, researchers gathered recently to probe a question hot on many parents’ minds, “Is the home-based system working?”

“I don’t see how we move to a different assignment process without understanding the equity implications of the current system,” said Kim Janey, senior project director at Massachusetts Advocates for Children.

Some parents say an equity analysis is long overdue on BPS’s home-based school assignment system, and that if it does not arrive soon, decisions may be made without it. The Boston Compact stated in a letter released last week that they are refining their unified enrollment proposal and Mayor Martin Walsh is expected to submit a proposal to the “decision-making bodies” in the city and state in “the months ahead.”

As part of the proposal, charter schools would switch their enrollment model from accepting students from anywhere in the state off a lottery to one that prioritizes local students, a move the state Legislature would have to approve.

Professors, researchers and BPS officials gathered at the Boston University Initiative on Cities headquarters for a panel discussion on the successes and challenges of the current system and what equitable access to quality schools truly means. The event was cosponsored by the BUIC, the BU School of Education and the Boston Area Research Initiative.

Home-based system arrives

Rolled out for the 2014-2015 school year, the home-based assignment model aimed to bring more equitable access to quality schools, while also prioritizing schools closest to where families live.

Each family’s list of potential schools from which to select must include a certain number of schools with high MCAS scores within a one-mile radius of where the family lives. If there are not enough high-performing schools nearby, more distant options are added. Meanwhile, parents may select citywide schools or send children to schools their siblings attend.

Promising start

Several panelists tentatively praise to the home-based system, saying that on the surface there seem to be improvements over the zone-based system — implemented in 1989 and modified over the years — but cautioned that it is early to say with certainty.

In part this is due to the complexity of the system and the problem it seeks to solve. Among the many issues panelists said need further investigation are the wide variance in what parents regard as “quality education.”

“Through very initial estimates at very surface levels, we’re seeing signs that [the home-based system] is working, that we’re moving in the direction that we intended to move,” said James Racanelli, operations management director for BPS.

Racanelli said families now have more equal lists of school choices, and that children are traveling less distance to attend schools.

Another achievement, he added: BPS analysis suggests that in the home-based system, families seem to have more equal access to the schools they choose, regardless of race, economic and income levels, and geographic location.

“We didn’t see large differences across groups in terms of getting into their top three choices,” Racanelli said.

Still, any verdict has yet to be made.

“You really need at least three years to take a look to see what kind of impact this is having,” noted Kim Rice, assistant superintendent of operations for BPS. “We are cautioning everybody to not jump to conclusions yet.”

Place matters

Under the three-zone system that ended with the 2013 implementation of the current plan, children living in the East Zone — which included Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan — had a 37 percent statistical probability of getting into what was deemed a “quality school,” whereas in the West Zone, that probability was 62 percent, Rice said. With the home-based system, every child is guaranteed at least two Tier 1 schools among their options.

However, the list only assures an equal number of schools, not an equal number of seats.

Children have a greater chance of getting a seat at a high-performing school if they live close to larger schools, Megan Wolff, a member of parent activist organization Quality Education for Every Student, told the Banner. And two Tier 1 schools are a minimum, not maximum: living close to many high-quality schools may generate more such options from which a student can select.

“It still depends on where you live,” Wolff said. “There are some areas in the city where you could have five level 1 schools in your basket because you live within a one-mile radius of five level 1 schools.”

Defining “quality”

The home-based system assumes that it can create equity by giving families more equal access to Tier 1 and 2 schools — that is, schools with recent records of high MCAS scores. But that metric is not always as attractive to parents as BPS expected, panelists said.

“[Tier ranking] doesn’t tell us as much about the school, as it tells us the socioeconomic status of the students,” Wolff said, noting that English Language Learner students and students with special needs tend to perform less well on such tests. “It’s not really telling us about the quality of the teaching.”

Nancy Hill, professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a member of BARI’s Steering Committee has been examining how parents choose schools. She said parents consider factors such as extracurricular offerings, proximity to the parents’ work, proximity to home, presence of playgrounds, safety of the neighborhood traveled through, start hours and whether their child would be the only of their ethnic or racial group at the school.

Barbara Rosa of the Citywide Parent Council said in a Banner interview that she enrolled her children in BPS under the zone system. Among the factors important to her: a start time that allowed her to get to work on time, after school-care and athletic facilities.

Currently, DiscoverBPS, the district’s online tool for learning about schools, lists tier levels, but misses these kinds of important details, Janey told the Banner.

Registration divide

Even if BPS and parents agree on what counts as a high-performing school, it is not enough for the district to provide parents an equal number of high-performing options, several researchers said. BPS must also go further to tackle inequality that becomes evident in parents’ approach to the sign-up process.

Kelley Fong, doctoral student in sociology and social policy at Harvard, said she conducted interviews and 800-900 parental surveys over the past few years about registration. While many parents believed they had all the information they wanted, it soon became clear they did not realize what they did not know, she said.

“They may understand they have choice, but not which schools will be on their list, or that it matters when you register — that seats will be gone.”

From her interviews, Fong found middle class parents were more likely to have examined their choices in advance and to have registered early, while most of the working class and poor parents she spoke with who registered by the deadline had never seen their lists before arriving at Welcome Centers to sign up.

“[These] parents are essentially often deciding on the spot.”

Meanwhile, a substantial number of parents register late, meaning by the time they make selections, fewer seats are remain free in the high-demand schools.

“These parents are severely disadvantaged,” Fong said. “[They are] getting slotted into least desirable schools.”

Parents without easy access to the internet have less ability to use DiscoverBPS to learn about options, while parents who are not connected to organizations miss out on receiving information.

Families who do use DiscoverBPS seemed to have positive responses. Wolff, who is on a parents’ listserv, said she had not heard complaints about the understandability of the system.

Boston Compact proposal

Meanwhile, theBoston Compact executive committee announced in a letter that it conducted three-months of public feedback gathering on its proposed unified enrollment system, which would fold charter schools into the current enrollment process. The committee says this system would take more of the burden from parents by not requiring them to research and individually apply to charter school options. Instead, charter schools would automatically be included in their choice basket.

The Boston Compact’s proposal received significant push-back from parents at several meetings.

The committee reported families voiced concerns that over issue such as lack of a common definition of “school quality,” need for an equity analysis of current enrollment policies, and perceived lack of transparency regarding the Compact and its funders.

Responding to these complaints, the executive committee said some changes will be made to the organization, including increased online posting of information about Compact meetings and funders, and that it will refine its proposal. The committee also acknowledged concerns about changing the home-based system before there is a full analysis of it.

“We concur that we need to understand the impact of the Home Based assignment system on equity and are encouraged that the School Committee and BPS leaders are working to bring forward data in the coming weeks.”

An equity study is expected from MIT, although some parents are concerned about the main researcher on the study having previous involvement developing the home-based assignment system and a unified enrollment-like system in another city, Wolff said.