Committee approves a plan that would restrict choice

After a year of deliberations, a special committee convened by the mayor proposed a new student-assignment system in Boston that would allow more children to attend school in their own neighborhoods while still allowing an element of choice.

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The recommended system, which would represent the biggest potential change in the process in more than two two decades, would guarantee that parents registering their children for kindergarten will have at least six schools to choose from, including at least four of medium or high-quality.

Twenty of the 27 members of the mayoral-appointed External Advisory Committee endorsed the proposal, which handily beat out three other finalists.

In an interview, Helen Dajer, a committee co-chairwoman, called the recommendation a “dramatic, bold move” and said the proposal “improves equitable access to quality schools.”

Superintendent Carol R. Johnson will present the recommendation Wednesday night to the School Committee, which has final say on implementation. The School Committee plans to hold community meetings on the recommendation before scheduling a vote.

“The advisory committee has done an excellent job,” Johnson said in an interview, reflecting on the process leading up to Monday night’s vote.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino proposed changing the student-assignment system last year, during his state of the city speech, proclaiming that students who live on the same street should have a greater chance of attending the same school.

Menino said that this would help build a stronger sense of community in the city’s neighborhoods and would provide parents a greater sense of confidence about which schools their children might ultimately attend.

Under the current system, enacted in 1989, the city is divided into three massive student-assignment zones, each offering parents a choice of about two dozen schools.

Menino applauded the advisory committee for undertaking a thoughtful process in coming up with its recommendation, as he reiterated his commitment to changing the student-assignment system.

“Our schools have made great progress in recent years and are now showing results that some once said were impossible to achieve,” Menino said in a statement. “Now is the time for us to take the next step and give our families a more simplified, predictable way of choosing a neighborhood school for their children.”

But City Councilor John Connolly, a likely mayoral candidate, said in an interview that the recommendation did not go far enough.

“The advisory committee did a great job, but they were limited by the plans the School Department put on the table. The plans don’t fully address [increasing] quality schools and didn’t guarantee families a seat close to home.”

The recommended system was developed by a doctoral student and professor at MIT and specialists from other institutions. It does away with the traditional practice of drawing school-attendance boundaries on a map.

Instead, a complex algorithm would generate a list of schools from which parents could choose based on a variety of factors, such as distance from school, school capacity, and MCAS performance.

The complex system attempts to address a debate that repeatedly surfaced during advisory committee discussions over the past year: How to ensure all students have equitable access to medium- and high-performing schools while trying to shrink the geographic region from which parents could choose schools.

In a city where many parents, school advocates and some advisory committee members feel there are not enough quality schools, it was a tricky balance to strike.

As part of its recommendation, the advisory committee urged school officials to devote more resources to bolstering school quality—an effort that Menino and Johnson have vowed to pursue aggressively.

The three proposals that failed to secure the advisory committee’s endorsement were a 10-zone plan, an 11-zone plan and a slightly altered version of the approved MIT proposal that would have offered a notably higher number of school choices.

The advisory committee also recommended separate student-assignment proposals for special education, English language learners and middle schools.

Many advisory committee members believe the recommendation will allow so many more students to attend schools closer to their homes that they urged the School Committee to consider eliminating a practice of giving students within a “walk-zone” of a school a special priority in school assignments.

Massachusetts Advocates for Children, a Boston non profit, expressed disappointment in the proposals.

“Under the current model and the proposed models, the disparities between those neighborhoods that have access to quality schools and those that in many cases only have access to underperforming schools are large and significant especially when accounting for race and socio-economic status,” the group said in a statement.