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Student-assignment plan appears to have momentum

Nine years ago, a task force recommendation to replace the city’s three student-
assignment zones with six appeared doomed from the start. Some task force members strongly opposed the recommendation, and a month later the proposal died before the School Committee.

This time around, however, a proposal that would allow more students to attend schools closer to their homes appears to have more momentum. It received a nearly unanimous endorsement Monday night from an advisory group appointed last year by Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who has vowed to change the system.

Many parents and education advocates expect the School Committee to swiftly approve the latest plan, which does away with the practice of drawing school attendance boundaries on a map.

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Instead, a complex algorithm would generate a list of at least six school choices for parents, based on a variety of factors, such as distance from school, school capacity, and MCAS performance.

“Unfortunately, I think because of the hype around something bold and new the School Committee will approve it,” said Barbara Fields, an executive board member of the Black Educators Alliance of Massachusetts who has closely followed the process and who opposes any changes until there are more good-quality schools. “I think that [the School Committee] feels they have to give this to the mayor, because this is something he asked for.”

If School Committee members approve the recommendation, they would deliver on a promise Menino made last year to create a student-assignment system that allows more students to attend schools in their neighborhood.

That could be a boon for Menino if he seeks reelection. Already, the issue has flared up on the campaign trail. Councilor John Connolly — who announced his campaign for mayor Tuesday, pledging to make education a central issue — criticized the recommendation a day earlier for not going far enough in guaranteeing students a school close to home.

The School Committee’s chairman, Michael O’Neill, has proposed an aggressive two-week timeline for deliberations on what could be the biggest change in the student assignment system in nearly 25 years, replacing a system that was developed to comply with court-ordered desegregation.

Superintendent Carol R. Johnson will present the recommendation to the School Committee Wednesday night, and a vote would occur at its next meeting, on March 13.

To speed up the deliberations, O’Neill wants to hold two public hearings on the recommendation on nights that had been scheduled as school budget hearings.

O’Neill was not available Tuesday for an interview, said Matthew Wilder, a School Department spokesman. But Wilder said the School Committee will give the recommendation serious consideration and adjust the timeline if necessary.

“I think it would be unwise for anyone to speculate what will happen before the School Committee is presented the recommendation,” Wilder said. “We have seven members who are independent and who ask questions.”

Some parents and advocates are hoping they still have time to persuade the School Committee to adopt some of the measures they say the advisory committee sidestepped.

QUEST, a grass-roots parent organization, said it will continue to advocate for ending a practice of giving students in a school’s “walk zone” a higher priority in school assignments, among other issues.

“Eliminating the walk zone would give children in the city a more equitable chance of going to a high-quality school,” said Megan Wolf, a QUEST member.

The Boston Parent Organizing Network, which opposed all the final options, said it would lobby for a comprehensive plan to bolster school quality and more specifics on how money will be spent on that plan.

“We are prepared to make our voices heard in terms of demanding a plan on how this revenue will be used, distributed, and prioritized,” said Myriam Ortiz, the group’s executive director. “Just implementing a [student-assignment] plan alone is not going to improve the quality.”

Anticipating debate over increasing the number of good-quality schools, a concern that caused the 2004 recommendation to unravel, Johnson said Tuesday that she will immediately create a Quality School Advisors team that would consist of community members and experts to advise the School Department on accelerating student achievement. It was one of many recommendations made by the External Advisory Committee Monday night.

Yet in spite of news media attention, many parents at two Boston schools Tuesday afternoon were unaware of the proposed change or said other issues should be higher priorities.

“I really don’t think it [the assignment plan] needs to be changed,” said Iris Escobar, 29, a stay-at-home mother in Roxbury, as she was picking up her 8-year-old daughter from the Hale School in Roxbury. “We need more extracurricular activities for the kids.”

But Emelly Matos, 29, a stay-at-home mother in Roxbury, said parents need options.

“I hate the assignment process right now,” said Matos, whose 10-year-old son attends the Hale.

At Mather Elementary School in Dorchester, Riccardo Denis, 36, a business owner who was picking up his 5-year-old stepson, said: “We should concentrate on bigger issues.”

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