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Rights groups sever school ties

Criticize process of student assignments

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / July 15, 2010

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Three prominent civil rights organizations have abruptly ended their partnership with the Boston public schools to create a new system to assign students to schools, concerned that the process is moving too slowly and has left out the public.

The organizations have been assisting Boston schools since last fall, when the district received a federal grant to engage the public in developing a new assignment plan that would ensure students had equitable access to high-quality programs and classrooms that reflected the city’s demographics. Yet, during that time, the district has not devoted a single public meeting to the issue.

School officials were informed of the decision in a letter sent by e-mail Monday by the three organizations — the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice at Harvard Law School, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law of the Boston Bar Association.

“We have reached this decision based on what many perceive as BPS’ lack of meaningful engagement with the community during this process,’’ the organizations wrote in the letter, which they provided to the Globe yesterday.

Superintendent Carol R. Johnson called the severed partnership unfortunate and surprising. She disputed the lack of community engagement, saying that she has been gathering public opinion as she speaks to parents, students, and other community members on a variety of issues confronting the district.

“I think it’s unfortunate they decided not to work further with us,’’ Johnson said. “I think these are very difficult sets of questions and conversations to have about student assignment. That’s why we reached out to them in the first place.’’

According to a new timeline, the district plans to formally consult parents and students on student assignments next January, while the School Committee would vote later in the year on a resulting plan so it can be enacted for Fall 2012.

Boston school officials said that before they can tackle the student-assignment issue they need to address two other pressing issues: improving the quality of schools in neighborhoods with a disproportionate share of low-achieving schools, and deciding which schools should be closed and what kinds of new schools to open.

Currently, the city is divided into three sprawling geographic regions for student assignments, providing families with a range of school choices. To save on transportation costs by shortening bus routes, Johnson last year proposed creating five smaller zones, but retreated from that plan after some parents and community activists said it would leave students in the poorest neighborhoods stuck with the worst schools.

Johnson ultimately asked the organizations to assist the district in applying for the federal grant, seeing value in their expertise, and they continued to advise the district after receiving the $241,680 grant. The groups had been meeting regularly until the end of March, when the three organizations held a summit on student assignments that featured national experts on the issue, the organizations and school officials said.

After that, the three organizations and district drifted apart.

The organizations grew increasingly uncomfortable with the partnership because their roles were never clearly defined and because the district never held public meetings on the student-assignment nor adequately explained to the public the goals of the federal grant, said Rahsaan Hall, staff attorney with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights.

Another issue, he said, was concern that the organizations could get swept into any public backlash against the resulting plan, especially if the proposal were not true to the organizations’ commitment to civil rights.

“If we were involved in the process and our suggestions weren’t included, we would be tied to a plan we would want to advocate against,’’ Hall said. “We felt it would be better to deal with the student-assignment issue at arms length.’’

In breaking their ties, the groups offered a range of recommendations as the district seeks to overhaul the student assignment system. The recommendations include improving public communication, confronting the lingering effects of school desegregation across the city, and working with state and suburban leaders to develop a regional “equity and diversity’’ plan.

Johnson said the district is pursuing, or planning to pursue, many of the recommendations, especially one calling for student assignments to be done in conjunction with other school overhaul efforts.

“We don’t have the option of walking away from these important issues,’’ Johnson said. “We have to continue to work to ensure our children get the best opportunities they can and what they need to be successful. We can’t do this alone, and we will continue to reach out to our partners.’’

Some community-based groups that oppose changing the district’s student assignment policy until every district school provides equal educational opportunities said they agreed the district needs to engage the community more aggressively.

“I don’t see that there is a respectful process to include all members of the community,’’ said Susan Trotz, a member of Work 4 Quality, a grassroots organization of educators, parents, and community activists.

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com.

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