Many may be forced to switch schools

Proposed changes to the way Boston assigns students could force thousands of children already attending schools to move to new ones in two years, stirring unease among parents and prompting officials to quickly seek a remedy.

Many parents say they are filled with dread at the prospect of having to go through the public school lottery again after growing comfortable with their schools, which often were not their top choices.

“That’s what keeps me up at night,” said Kristin Barrali, of Roslindale, whose two children could lose access to their current school, Mendell Elementary in Roxbury, under the proposed changes.

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“I think kids should be put first in this decision,” Barrali said. “I know money is an issue, but it’s not clear what the cost savings is.”

Initially, school officials said it might be necessary to reshuffle students among dozens of elementary, middle, and K-8 schools across Boston so the city can save money on busing costs. The goal of each of the five student-assignment proposals unveiled last week is to have students attending schools closer to their homes.

But on Tuesday, the officials said it appears the School Committee will have to adopt some kind of “grandfathering” policy to allow some students to remain at their current schools — otherwise students would end up switching schools at an alarming rate.

“We believe the numbers of students who would be impacted without grandfathering would be too disruptive to the city,” said Matthew Wilder, a School Department spokesman, noting that grandfathering current students has emerged as the number one issue raised by parents since the proposals were released.

Under the most aggressive proposal — assigning students to the closest school to their home — more than 17,000 students would lose access to their current school, some 83 percent of all students affected by the changes, according to data the School Department released Tuesday at the Globe’s request.

Even under the most modest proposal, which would carve the city into six assignment zones instead of the current three, more than 7,500 students, a third of all students, would no longer live in their school’s attendance zone, forcing their parents to apply to a different slate of schools in their new attendance area.

At Wednesday night’s School Committee meeting, Superintendent Carol R. Johnson intends to make some recommendations on grandfathering students at their current schools, Wilder said.

He said the School Department is weighing all possibilities from grandfathering all current students — a commitment that could keep current preschoolers in their K-8 schools for the next decade — to grandfathering for a limited period.

The five proposals represent the biggest potential changes to the way the city assigns students to schools since the current system went into effect in 1989, replacing a court-ordered desegregation plan that polarized the city.

Yet even at that time, the School Committee granted grandfathering to all students enrolled in their school when it voted to adopt the current system.

That promise, however, came with two notable hitches: It guaranteed transportation for only a limited period, and grandfathering did not apply to any siblings who were not already enrolled at the school, according to a Globe story from that time.

Having a high number of students switch schools in a given year could create instability across the system and could hinder academic achievement, said Martin West, an assistant professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.

“We know the consequences can be the most severe for students who are at the greatest risk of academic failure,” said West, whose research in Florida found that students who transitioned to middle schools tended not to do as well as students who went to K-8 schools.

While he noted there is no proven model to help districts with a large-scale transfer of students, he said Boston could ease the transition by “making sure there is very good communication and transfer of information across schools about students’ ability levels and their needs.”

Academics, though, are not parents’ only concern about losing access to their schools. Many worry the upheaval could shatter a sense of community that many schools have painstakingly built over the years, often with the help of a dedicated core of parent volunteers.

“I would be upset to find ourselves back in the lottery when we already made our way through it,” said Marie Zemler Wu, whose daughter attends kindergarten at the Mather School in Dorchester. “We have an incredible and active parent group, which is a big part of why we chose the Mather.”

But Zemler Wu, who decided to buy a home after securing her daughter’s spot at the Mather School, would ultimately lose access to the Mather under most of the assignment plans.

Avery Saulnier de Reyes, of East Boston, said she does not understand why students cannot continue attending their current schools if their families can provide the transportation. She said she and her husband have been taking their 10-year-old daughter by subway and bus to and from the Mission Hill K-8 each day — a commute that got considerably longer this year when the School Department moved the school’s location from its namesake neighborhood to the southern part of Jamaica Plain.

“I feel like we’ve been doing our part by not using the [School Department’s] transportation,” said Saulnier de Reyes, noting her daughter would have just two years left at the school when the student-assignment changes go into effect in 2014. “If we are not using it, why can’t we keep going to the same school.”

At the Clap Innovation School in Dorchester, many parents are up in arms about their children possibly getting booted, just two years after parents successfully fought against the superintendent’s recommendation to close it and convinced her to reinvest in it.

“It would be so detrimental to all the work we have done,” said Kenny Jervis, whose son, a first-grader, would lose access to the school because they live in South Boston. “I’m torn. I understand the need for neighborhood schools, but until they can improve every school it’s tough to accept.”