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GETTING IN | INSIDE BOSTON’S SCHOOL ASSIGNMENT MAZE

A daily diaspora, a scattered street

Every morning, children in Boston disperse to schools all over. Childhood chums, and neighborhood feeling, can be left behind

By Stephanie Ebbert and Jenna Russell
Globe Staff / June 12, 2011

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Fourth in a series of occasional articles.

Every weekday on Montvale Street this fall, Abel and Aryana Saavedra will leave their second-floor apartment at 6:45 a.m. for Forest Hills Station, where they will board separate buses bound for schools in Wellesley. A half-hour later, their next-door neighbor, Seamus Folan, will emerge from his condo so his mother can drive him to his Hyde Park charter school. Soon, Sophie Rousell will be shooed into her mother’s Jeep for the 5-mile drive to a Chestnut Hill private school — followed by five other kindergartners who will appear on their porches and disperse to at least four other public schools.

In September, the 19 school-age children who live on this one city block in Roslindale will migrate to a dizzying array of 15 public, private, and charter schools, from West Roxbury to Wellesley, traveling a combined 182 miles each day. There was a time — some here remember it well — when all the kids on Montvale went to nearby Wolfgang Mozart Elementary School, making the short walk together in a familiar, noisy pack with neighborhood playmates who were almost like brothers and sisters. Now, the children on this and other streets across the city scatter every morning, due to a lottery system that allows them to travel beyond their neighborhood for a chance to attend a better school — or drives them out of the public schools altogether by assigning them to a disappointing choice.

The daily exodus costs the city dearly, both in sky-high transportation costs — almost $80 million a year — and, some sociologists and education specialists say, in weakened ties among families, which can strain the tenuous fabric of neighborhoods.

Frustration with the system’s shortcomings has fueled repeated calls for a return to neighborhood schools, which would dispatch children to the nearest school. But in a city with schools of uneven caliber, a return to the old ways would mean many students would lose, primarily minorities, who would be yoked to the struggling schools in many of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Because of that racial subtext, and the scars from court-ordered busing 40 years ago, even the talk of change is fraught with difficulty.

That has left many in Boston — parents who want the best for their children; officials who want to staunch the flow of middle-class families to the suburbs — locked in a deep and mostly silent struggle about how to move forward.

It has also left some parents feeling like they have lost something precious.

“It’s not like we’ve got this great neighborhood feel,’’ said Denise Kitty-Rousell, a mother raising her two children in the Montvale Street duplex in which her husband grew up. “And I think part of that is because there’s no school. There’s no community.’’

Her family is one of 13 the Globe is following through Boston’s student assignment process this year and one of several who long for a less complicated system that would help keep neighborhoods intact. To get a glimpse of a typical block in the city, where children who live side-by-side set out for separate schools each morning, reporters spent time on the Rousells’ block.

. . .

With its mix of single-family homes and three-deckers, apartments and condos, lifelong residents and transplants, Montvale Street presents a snapshot of middle-class Boston life. Residents include an ultrasound technician; a real estate agent; a hairstylist; a commuter rail dispatcher; graduate students; and retirees. The street is home to a high school biology teacher and middle school principal and several other city and school employees who are required to live in the city.

Near the border of West Roxbury, where the leafy neighborhoods have a decidedly suburban ambiance, Montvale Street still feels slightly urban. Its residents tend to know mostly their immediate neighbors — the ones who live closest or who have children of the same age — and they come and go with barely an acknowledgment, buckling kids into minivans or hatchbacks rather than walking. After the school day ends, the street is oddly quiet but for the rumble of trains passing through the commuter rail station a few blocks away. Theresa Folan, Seamus’s mother, said she seldom sees children playing on the street.

“I’m always shocked around Halloween: Where do these kids live?’’ she said.

It’s a far cry from the days when Lori MacLeod grew up here. Back then, the families who lived around her had seven, eight, and nine children — enough to field neighborhood softball and football teams — and the kids played in the street from dawn until dinnertime in the summer. The families organized block parties and at midnight on New Year’s Eve, MacLeod and a neighbor got a couple of kids to walk up and down Montvale Street banging pots and pans.

“We all knew each other,’’ said MacLeod, now 54 and still living in the house where she grew up. “Unfortunately, now the kids that grow up in the neighborhood don’t have that anymore. So many go to parochial schools.’’

Ten years after MacLeod started at the Mozart, the city began busing students across neighborhoods to integrate schools and many white families began abandoning the public schools for private alternatives. Steve Rousell and his siblings — whom MacLeod occasionally baby-sat — left the Mozart for Holy Name Parish School. By the time the Rousells’ next-door neighbor Ricky McMahon was in school in the 1990s, mandatory busing had ended but the exodus continued, due to the lottery. The complex assignment system, designed to compensate for the sub-par schools in many Boston neighborhoods, gives parents an edge in gaining admission to the closest schools, but also lets them vie for better options elsewhere.

“I never went to school with anybody from my neighborhood,’’ said McMahon, 30, who graduated in 1999. Nor, he said, did he go to high school with his friends from middle school. The lottery dispersed them once again.

“I ended up with Dot High and my friend ended up with Hyde Park and one in West Roxbury,’’ he said. “It doesn’t make sense to me all around. I think it also ruins friendships.’’

. . .

Society has changed in innumerable other ways since MacLeod’s childhood. Today’s parents are more fearful about young children playing outside unsupervised, even on a street like Montvale where they feel safe from crime. More mothers are working, so more children are attending after-school programs rather than roaming backyards with their neighbors. Working parents can seldom spare time to walk their kids to school and when they drive, young children must be strapped into car seats, making carpooling a challenge.

But the absence of a common school has played a role, too. Families are less likely to know each other when their children don’t attend school together, specialists say, and their children lose out as a result — on stable, sustaining friendships that could help them weather adolescence and on a safety net of interconnected adults who know them and look out for them.

“It definitely hurts the neighborhood,’’ said Lisa Gonsalves, a University of Massachusetts Boston education professor who examined the city’s school assignment system as part of a task force in 2003. “The neighborhood loses this bond between families if the children in it aren’t friends. Some parents remember growing up with strong connections to their neighborhood, and when they see that their kids don’t have that, there’s a nostalgia.’’

Yet they quickly add the caveat that neighborhood schools wouldn’t be a fair alternative unless every neighborhood has a good school to offer — a goal that seems so elusively out of reach that it brings the debate to a screeching halt.

But Mayor Thomas M. Menino sees the problem differently: He maintains that all the city’s elementary schools are good and that the school district suffers from problems of perception.

“The issue is that we have to convince parents that the school near their home is a good school,’’ Menino said. “We have to do a better job of selling our schools to parents, of getting the information out that these are quality schools.’’

Kitty-Rousell, 36, was among a group of Roslindale and West Roxbury parents who urged school officials last year to overhaul the lottery system and reconsider neighborhood schools. They soon learned how loaded a term “neighborhood schools’’ is, harkening back to the days when white Bostonians resisted the integration of schools across neighborhood lines.

“If I had known that ‘neighborhood schools’ was code for racist . . . I certainly would have second-guessed it,’’ added Theresa Strang, a former West Roxbury resident who formed the Coalition for Neighborhood Schools and who, in her own childhood, left the public schools after busing began in Boston. “When I think of neighborhood schools, I think of walking to school with my sister. Another mother picks you up, you go to a friend’s house two doors down.’’

In practice, reverting to neighborhood schools could leave Boston’s schools more segregated, because of the city’s demographic patterns. But if that concern could be addressed, said Mark Warren, a sociologist at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, there is reason to believe that children going to school in their neighborhoods could help make schools better.

“There’s a lot of evidence that strong forms of family engagement are essential to school improvement,’’ he said. “In Boston that’s extremely difficult, because kids are coming to school from a wide area. When kids live in a different part of the city, their parents aren’t taking them to the school playground or to community events held at school. They’re probably not walking them there. A lot of times, [parents] are only called in when there’s a problem.’’

Even some parents disillusioned with the lottery system and the schools their children were assigned to still bristle at the notion of returning to neighborhood schools or revamping the lottery.

“Neighborhood schools wouldn’t improve the quality of schools overall. It just lets them untether themselves from a segment of society that maybe they don’t feel that they should have to be involved with,’’ said Jeff Rogers, a black father from Roxbury whose children’s experience with the school lottery is also being followed by the Globe.

Yet Rogers is among those who untethered his own children from his community, finding alternatives outside Boston public schools.

“And that’s why I’m a hypocrite. And that’s why I feel guilty,’’ he said. “I understand this argument fully but when I have to look my kids in the face, I wasn’t able to send them to a school where I thought [they would] be coarsened prematurely, where I thought untalented kids would take up teachers’ time.’’

. . .

Montvale Street’s neighborhood school, the Mozart, is no longer considered as desirable as it once was. But the lottery, which provides choices but no guarantees, means that parents can look farther afield. The youngest students here have their pick of two dozen elementary schools and early-learning centers in their area of the city, including the Patrick Lyndon and Joyce Kilmer K-8 schools, two of the area’s most sought-after, with some of the most impressive test scores. Most Montvale parents compete to get into at least one of them; but next fall, only one of the 19 students on the block will be attending each.

The Rousells were among the families who applied for the Lyndon and Kilmer schools, though Beethoven Elementary in West Roxbury was their top choice. They got none of their choices in the lottery and enrolled Sophie in a private school in Chestnut Hill.

Directly across the street, 6-year-old Gabriella Semanduyeva lives close enough to wave and call to Sophie out her window. Her family requested the Mozart but got into Phineas Bates Elementary, her second choice.

Sophie’s next-door neighbor, Jake Shamon, is going to the Mozart, although his family had requested the Haley. Jake’s close friend Sam Feathers — who lives in the condo right above Jake and who might, in another town, be his classmate in kindergarten — is going to the Bates after requesting the Kilmer, Philbrick, or Beethoven schools.

Most of the children in the neighborhood who left the Boston public schools — eight in all — first tried their luck in the lottery. Some left for private schools but returned years later after winning entry to the city’s competitive exam school, Boston Latin. Some families had backup plans all along.

“I graduated from the Boston schools and I didn’t want my children going to the Boston schools,’’ said Alex Saavedra, 36, who lives four houses up Montvale from Sam and Jake. “I just felt it was one of those situations where some teachers cared and others were there for a paycheck.’’

So he got his children enrolled in Metco, the state-funded program that sends more than 3,000 Boston students of color to school in surrounding suburbs to promote diversity. His children go to Wellesley schools, where Saavedra said parent participation is tremendous. Still, Saavedra has to leave his job at the city’s Ohrenberger Community Center twice a day to pick up the kids from their separate buses. (His wife doesn’t drive.) His 7-year-old daughter, Aryana, typically doesn’t get home until 4:45 p.m., a full 10 hours after the first-grader leaves her house.

“It’s such a long day for them,’’ Saavedra said. “But the great thing about Metco is, almost to a man, everybody will say the end result is something they wouldn’t trade for the world.’’

Others started out with high hopes of remaining in the public schools but were worn down by the unwieldy process of getting their children enrolled. Juli Greenwood wasn’t worried about the lottery seven years ago when she and her former husband bought a condo near the top of Montvale Street, up the hill and across the street from Saavedra.

“I just thought it would work. We weren’t picky,’’ said Greenwood, a 37-year-old product of public schools in rural Townsend. “We know plenty of people who were like, ‘If we don’t get the Kilmer or Lyndon, we’re going to do private.’ I had 17 schools. I didn’t care. I wanted a good school but I wasn’t hyper obsessed with test scores.’’

But her son, Eliot Giarla, was not assigned to any of those 17 schools. And again last year, he lingered on a wait list all summer. Just a few days before he started private school, he was offered a seat at Boston’s Beethoven Elementary — too late, in his mother’s estimation.

“I felt like I had worked really hard the last few weeks of August getting Eliot excited about Holy Name,’’ said Greenwood, who works in public relations. “I just didn’t want to pull the rug out from under him.’’

Now, with her 4-year-old, Nora, getting ready for school, Greenwood has lost her optimism about the Boston schools. She doesn’t want to deal with uncertainty from the lottery and she doesn’t think she can afford to send two children to parochial school.

“It’s frustrating, especially for those of us who really believe in an urban environment and the great things it’s going to provide us — that we can walk everywhere, have a sense of community, go to museums,’’ said Greenwood. “It’s very hard to find realistic solutions. I need my kid to go to school. This should not be so hard.’’

So instead of driving her kids to private schools every day, she’s reluctantly leaving the city for good. Her three-bedroom condo on Montvale Street is for sale.

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.