Boston school-assignment plans unveiled

Boston school officials Monday night presented five proposals for assigning students to schools that would carve up the city into as many as 23 attendance regions.

The other proposals would divide the city into either six, nine, or 11 zones. A fifth plan has no zones and would attempt to let students attend a school closest to their home, depending on the availability of seats.

The proposals represent a big departure from the city’s 23-year-old system of assigning students to schools, which chops up the city into three sprawling geographic regions and sends kids on the same street to several schools many miles apart—driving up busing costs and often pulling apart the fabric of neighborhood togetherness.

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“We tried to make sure each zone had a range of options,” Carleton Jones, the School Department’s executive director for capital and facilities management, said in an interview before the meeting.

The proposed changes are an attempt by Mayor Thomas M. Menino to simplify the process for families to apply to schools, build a stronger sense of community in neighborhoods, and hopefully reduce busing costs in a city that spends about $80 million a year transporting students to and from school.

The presentation Monday night, at Lilla Frederick Pilot Middle School, was made to an advisory committee appointed by the mayor, which will sort through the proposals and will recommend one of them in November for the School Committee to approve. The School Committee could vote on the final recommendation in December. Changes could go into effect for fall 2014.

The zone-free map, by far, comes the closest to returning to a system somewhat akin to neighborhood schools. Students on average would travel less than a quarter mile to school, compared to the current average of 1.49 miles.

But that proximity comes with a tradeoff: It would lead to the greatest segregation of students by race and class among the five proposals.

On the other end of the spectrum, students under the six-zone proposal would travel an average distance of 1.29 miles and would ensure the greatest level of diversity among any of the proposals.

The proposals will not eliminate one requirement of the assignment system that many parents loathe: Ranking their choices of schools and then waiting many weeks to see if the School Department’s computerized algorithm gives them their top pick or one of their less enthusiastic options.

But under the proposed changes, families would not have to go through the lottery process again for middle school. Each elementary would be designated to “feed into” a specific middle school.

For instance, students from the Marshall Elementary School and the Holland Elementary School would feed into the Lilla Frederick, while students from the Mather Elementary School and Henderson Elementary School would feed into the Harbor Middle School.

The School Department will gather input from parents and other interested community members at a series of community meetings that kick off Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Burke High School in Dorchester.

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