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Concerns about Boston's school-assignment proposals aired at meeting

Posted by Jeremy C. Fox  October 11, 2012 04:05 PM

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(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)

State Representatives Linda Dorcena Forry and City Councilor John R. Connolly presented the Quality Choice Plan at a Wednesday night hearing of the External Advisory Committee on School Choice.

Boston Public School students’ access to a quality education may be more unequal than anyone previously understood, and proposals to shrink assignment districts would only worsen the situation, according to a Harvard professor.

Meira Levinson told the External Advisory Committee on School Choice Wednesday night that an analysis of school assignment by individual students shows access to high- and medium-quality schools is wildly disproportionate, even among neighborhoods in the same zone of the School Department’s current three-zone assignment system.

“It is very clear that we have differential access by neighborhood within single zones — really radically different,” said Levinson, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and mother of two students at the Rafael Hernández K-8 School.

A map by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council shows that students in West Roxbury, Roslindale, Charlestown, and pockets of Jamaica Plain, the South End, north Dorchester, East Boston, and South Boston have a better than 80 percent chance of attending a high- or medium-quality school under the current assignment system.

Conversely, students in Allston-Brighton and other pockets of Mattapan, south Dorchester, Roxbury, Jamaica Plain, and the Fenway/Kenmore Square area currently have a less than 40 percent chance of attending a school ranked high- or medium-quality by a combination of MCAS scores, ratings by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, and by popularity in the school assignment lottery.

A spokesman for the School Department agreed that the current assignment system is flawed and said that is why the department is working to design a new system.

“I don’t think you’ll find very many people who will venture to say the current system is perfect and works great for the families of the city,” said Matthew Wilder, the spokesman, by phone on Thursday.

Wilder said the data used in the analysis measure some aspects of school performance but don’t always jibe with the experiences of children and parents. He pointed to recent improvements in a number of previously low-performing schools across the district, such as the Orchard Gardens K-8 Pilot School and Blackstone Elementary.

“I just want to underscore that we recognize that parents want access to quality schools first and foremost, and we really are undertaking a host of interventions to make that possible,” Wilder said. “And I think we’re already seeing the results of that in our 11 turnaround schools.”

At the Wednesday meeting, held at Suffolk University, Levinson said data used in the analysis were incomplete and couldn’t take into account individual experiences. But she told the committee the analysis should act as a check on experience and intuition. The committee — made up of parents, educators, and leaders from business and non-profit organizations — is advising the School Department on plans to improve the school-assignment system.

The School Department on Sept. 24 released five proposals that aim to give most families options for schools closer to home, build a stronger sense of community, and reduce busing costs.

Four would replace the current three-zone system with six, nine, 11, or 23 smaller zones, while another would eliminate zones altogether and assign students to the nearest school with an available seat.

At Wednesday’s committee hearing, Levinson presented another set of maps, first made public last week, that show access to quality schools would becoming increasingly disproportionate as the number of zones increases, with some zones giving almost all children access to good schools while other zones would include none.

City Councilor John R. Connolly also pointed out what he said were flaws in the current system that he said hurt disadvantaged students. He presented tables showing the distribution of students in low-performing schools in South Boston and Hyde Park includes many students bused across the city.

Disproportionately, those children are African American and Latino and come from poverty, he said.

“You’re busing a lot of poor children of color across neighborhoods to go to school with other poor children of color,” Connolly said. “And that’s been missing from the debate.”

Connolly and a group of other elected officials unveiled an alternative proposal last week. The Quality Choice Plan, also endorsed by City Councilor Matt O’Malley, and State Representatives Linda Dorcena Forry, Nick Collins, Ed Coppinger and Russell Holmes, would guarantee students seats in kindergarten classes close to home but also establish 16 citywide magnet schools.

The proposal would also grandfather all current students into the schools they attend and guarantee younger siblings access to those schools. It includes mandatory evaluations for both teachers and principals, and it would introduce nine new dual-language schools and require each school to include “advanced work” or “honors” programs.

Connolly’s proposal would also allow groups of 2 – 11 parents to form compacts to enroll their children together in schools that still had open seats in the second round of the assignment process. Connolly said his family and seven others had attempted such a compact last year at the William Monroe Trotter Elementary School, which had 15 open seats in round two of the school lottery.

But because the lottery system currently includes no formal mechanism for "compacting," half those families were unable to get into the Trotter School and ultimately left the school system, he said.

Other proposals presented Wednesday include one from South End father Josh Weiss that would create more zones but pair each with a zone that is complementary in demographics and school quality, and let parents choose either.

Douglas Johnson, a parent who served on a previous student assignment task force in 1986, presented a Neighborhood Plus Plan that would include no zones and give each city neighborhood a choice of five to eight elementary schools and a Know Your School Plan that would allow parents to pre-register their children beginning at age 3 and have a reserved seat.

MIT graduate student Peng Shi presented a plan that would use a complex algorithm to give each student an equal statistical chance of attending a quality school and the option of trading probabilities with other students to improve their chances of acceptance at a school with particularly desirable programs.

Helen Dajer, co-chairwoman of the committee, said its mission is not to pick a single solution out of those presented but to find a solution that incorporates the best ideas from each plan.

But some parents have expressed concern that the process is moving too quickly and does not allow enough time for busy parents to digest the various proposals.

An online petition requesting that the School Department waive the current timeline for a decision and disregard its five proposals had nearly 450 signatures by Thursday morning.

Another parents’ group has circulated a petition asking that the School Department make no decision on the assignment process until pressing questions on how to improve quality at all schools be addressed. A mother in attendance at Wednesday’s meeting said that petition had about 375 signatures.

Email Jeremy C. Fox at jeremycfox@gmail.com.
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