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EDITORIAL

School-assignment plan - a relic in need of a full overhaul

December 13, 2011
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BIG, HULKING South Boston High School, scene of rock-throwing and angry protests during the busing crisis of the ’70s, is now two smaller schools dedicated to environmental sciences, global citizenship, and college preparation. Roxbury’s Orchard Park, once the most crime-ridden ghetto in the city, is now Orchard Gardens, home to an over-achieving K-8 school, a model for turnaround efforts throughout the city.

Yet whenever officials reassess the Boston school-assignment plan, the busing crisis remains the touchpoint. Segregation was the original sin of the Boston schools - the conscious failure to invest in schools in poor, black neighborhoods - and remains the most oft-cited reason why the city should resist proposals to return the system to its neighborhood roots.

Boston’s punishment is a daunting, time-consuming assignment process that drives away thousands of families - some to charter schools, some to Metco, and many out of the city entirely. It’s a plan that doesn’t remotely provide desegregation - with some schools more than 99 percent minority - but that officials are reluctant to change for fear of upsetting the fragile political equilibrium that sustains it.

Proposal after proposal has emerged to return to a more predictable system, where the youngest students are guaranteed slots in schools near their homes, where school choice is used to expand options rather than force students to be bused far from their neighborhoods, where parents and non-parents alike can come together and invest in civic life. Boston needs to move in this direction - toward making schools into anchors for their communities.

Plans to simplify school assignment offer a chance to bring families back into a city that’s increasingly made up of singles, childless couples, and empty-nesters. Children make up just 17 percent of Boston’s population, one of the lowest percentages of any city in the country.

Yet these plans falter because of concerns about reconstituting the forces that led to the busing crisis. Politicians regard the term “neighborhood schools’’ as toxic. Activists - some of whom haven’t had children in the system for decades - rush in to claim that students will be disadvantaged by race, economics, or geography.

What remains is a system where students travel on buses to schools far from their homes, a daily migration that deprives them of playmates, consumes precious hours that could be devoted to learning, and costs the city $73 million - about 10 percent of the schools budget - for transportation alone.

In addressing the sins of the past, the current assignment plan also masks the sins of the present. A formula so complicated that only the most sophisticated parents understand it, the plan combines parental choice, the luck of the lottery, and a built-in preference to keep siblings together. But it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the whole buckling contraption is designed to make up for the fact that about half of Boston’s schools rank in the bottom fifth on statewide tests.

Those statistics can be misleading. The number of high-quality schools has increased in recent years, and the number of poor ones is declining. Still, rather than consign kids to the weaker schools based on where they live, the system offers an elaborate way out. But it’s also, of course, a way into poorer schools for thousands of unlucky kids who don’t get any of their choices. And it can be a ticket out - out of the city - for families who don’t want to put up with the vagaries of the system.

Now, the school department is moving, gingerly, to reassess its assignment plan. Officials are starting to meet with parents. Consultants will be retained. But no changes are expected before the 2013-2014 school year. There’s reason to fear that the plan that emerges will be an incremental improvement rather than a bold step. Yet there are signs that Boston is ready for a bigger change. Dissatisfaction with the amount of time kids are on buses, and the complicated routes required to get them to school, is felt in almost every neighborhood.

A year-long series in the Globe showed how the assignment plan split up neighborhoods, telling the story of Montvale Street in Roslindale, where 19 children headed off to 15 different schools, separating playmates and turning simple school visits into odysseys for parents. Neighbors rightly mourned the afternoon silence that replaced the sound of children at play. The Globe also documented the struggles of parents like 43-year-old Betty Legendre of Mattapan, an unemployed single mother who moved to Boston, only to be confronted with a maze of decisions, requirements, and deadlines she couldn’t begin to decipher. It showed the frustration of parents like Kathy and Glyn Polson of the South End, forced to consider moving out of their home or paying for private schools while waiting, seemingly endlessly, to see if their 5-year-old daughter got into a school they trusted.

Creating a system that gives every child a place in a school near home, while also preserving citywide magnets like the Hernandez School, with its popular two-way bilingual program, and guaranteeing the rights of students in underperforming schools to move to better ones, won’t be easy. Some schools will have to close. New ones will have to open.

Yet these are the types of decisions the school department will have to make anyway, as it prepares to lose about 8,000 of today’s 57,000 students to new charter schools. And in choosing where to open and close schools it will, inevitably, confront the fear of rekindling the inequalities that led to the busing crisis.

But history doesn’t stand still. The past may be prologue, but it can also be overcome. In the ’70s, Boston systematically underfunded its lowest-performing schools. Today, Boston is putting greater-than-average resources into its lowest-performing schools, a commitment that’s at the heart of city, state, and federal education policy. The effort to zero in on the weakest schools is fueled, as well, by the Boston Foundation and city businesses, who’ve poured millions of dollars into reform programs. Today’s Boston doesn’t ignore the worst schools, it focuses intently on improving them.

Today’s education policy also aims to ensure that no child gets stuck in a poor school. To that end, there are growing numbers of spaces in charter schools. Citywide magnet schools within the Boston Public Schools can, and should, be another choice. And there is still the Metco program that offers thousands of minority students a chance to attend suburban schools.

With new values, new approaches, and more options available, the system is ripe for change. Clinging to an assignment system that provides little real diversity just because it represents an acceptable compromise between the political forces unleashed in 1974 isn’t a sign of wisdom, but of fear: Boston’s fear of itself.

To perpetuate that fear, or move beyond it, is a choice the city must make in the coming months. The fear is based on real experience, and can’t be dismissed out of hand. But it’s holding Boston back, preventing it from attracting new families and enjoying the full benefits of a dramatic increase in the popularity of urban living. Boston is better than it thinks it is: Fairer, and more capable of solving seemingly intractable problems. It’s time to move on.First in a series of editorials on Boston’s school assignment policy.

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