(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)
Frustrated by the lack of available seats at their neighborhood public school, a group of parents is challenging the school system to address the problem.
Following Boston Public Schools’ recent school assignment lottery, North End parents and their supporters began circulating a petition to ask the city to expand the popular John Eliot K-8 School before the beginning of the 2011-2012 school year.
The petition is addressed to Mayor Thomas M. Menino, School Superintendent Carol Johnson, District City Councilor Salvatore LaMattina, and the four at-large city councilors and asks them to expand the school to serve downtown and North End families. Copies have been placed at five public locations around the neighborhood and distributed by e-mail and by hand.
The copies were scheduled to be collected at the end of the day on Friday, April 1, and delivered to city officials.
(Related coverage: Read stories from the Globe's series on Boston's school-assignment policy. Go to boston.com/gettingin)
Fulton Street resident Joy McDonald said the petition drive grew out of a conversation among neighborhood parents at a local playground about the tough decisions that many would have to make.
“We’re forced to either pay expensive tuitions at private schools in the area or forced to make a move [out of the city],” McDonald said.
McDonald, 34, is one of the parents leading the movement, though her own four-year-old son Luke was just accepted to the Eliot School.
“We were one of the lucky ones that did get into the Eliot, and we are so thrilled because if we didn’t, we would be just like all those other families that didn’t get into their neighborhood school that are thinking about moving now,” McDonald said. “But now I’m fighting for the rest of our neighborhood, and the rest of our city, really.”
By March 30, the petition had garnered close to 1,000 signatures, McDonald said, and had widespread support throughout the community.
“It’s not only the families that want the Eliot to expand, it’s also the seniors that want the families to be able to stay in the city,” she said. “The other day, I went to the Nazzaro Community Center and all the ladies that were playing bingo there signed the petition.”
In interviews, some parents noted that the number of schools in the North End and throughout the larger downtown area had decreased during their lifetimes with the closing of several parochial schools nearby and the public Peter Faneuil School on Beacon Hill. That wasn’t so much of a problem when there were fewer young families in the area, but as the population of school-aged children has increased in recent years, the options have not kept pace.
Parents stressed that they love the North End and love the access that living in the city gives their children to a variety of educational and recreational activities as well as a diverse community of neighbors. They are driven, they said, by the desire to make it possible for their families to stay in the city.
Doug and Jen Bowen-Flynn have signed the petition and helped recruit neighbors to sign it as well. They’re still trying to figure out what they’ll do this fall now that they know their daughter Sawyer, 4, wasn’t accepted to the Eliot School — which sits directly across Charter Street from their home, about 30 feet from their front door.
“We would argue that we probably live closer to a public school than anyone else in Boston,” said Jen Bowen-Flynn, 38. “My daughter can see the kindergarten classroom from her bedroom.”
“I just am not OK with the idea of putting my four-year-old on a bus across the city,” said Doug Bowen-Flynn, 40. “And there are no other options. It’s not like there was another neighborhood school we could choose.”
The Bowen-Flynns had listed the Eliot's two kindergarten classes as their top two choices and the two classes at the Quincy School in Chinatown as their third and fourth. They feel that with only one school in the neighborhood, there should be neighborhood priority at the Eliot for North End residents, as there is for East Boston residents in that neighborhood’s schools due to its location across Boston Harbor from the rest of the city.
“At least if you live in another community in Boston, you may not get your first-choice school, you may not even get your second-choice school, but at least your child can go to school locally,” Jen Bowen-Flynn said. “We don’t have that option here in the North End.”
They say they they’re committed to raising their daughter in the city and to ideals of public education — Doug Bowen-Flynn teaches at a public school in Medford — but they’re not willing to sacrifice their daughter’s safety or her education.
The petition does not specify how the city should expand the Eliot School, but the Bowen-Flynns and McDonald said they hope the city will embrace an offer from the North Bennet Street School, a North End institution that has taught traditional skills such as carpentry, bookbinding and jewelry making for 125 years.
That school has expressed an interest in relocating to the old District A-1 police station and adjacent former city printing plant on North Street and has offered its current space at North Bennet and Salem streets to the Eliot School either by sale or straight trade. North Bennet President Miguel Gómez-Ibáñez has said the school’s complex of four internally connected buildings is assessed at about $1 million more than the printing plant and police station buildings.
The city’s position on the offer is unclear, but it has considerable community support. The North End/Waterfront Residents’ Association voted in January to support the plan. The North End/Waterfront Neighborhood Council has not yet voted, but several members of the council and neighborhood residents expressed personal support at the March meeting where Gómez-Ibáñez presented the proposal.
Jessica Dello Russo, 37, recognizes the need for the Eliot School to grow, but she isn’t sure the North Bennet Street space is the solution. As a former teacher at Boston Latin School, she knows the issues include both finding both enough space and finding the right kind of facilities. Already, the Eliot School’s lack of a gymnasium or playing fields means its students must leave the campus for athletic activities.
“This would be really almost a unique school in the system,” she said. “If they do expand, it would still mean that their campus is almost like an urban university where you have to go from one building to another, perhaps.”
Dello Russo sympathizes with the neighborhood’s frustrated parents, having gone through the lottery for kindergarten placement last year. She applied to several schools in the North Zone — in the North End, South End and Charlestown — as well as citywide schools, but her son Ezio, 4, didn’t win a slot anywhere in the city. Dello Russo said she felt fortunate, though, because her son was accepted at his first-choice private school in Cambridge.
“I kind of covered all the bases. I tell people, apply public, private and parochial. If you want to live in the city, you really have to consider multiple options based on assignment and availability.”
Snow Hill Street resident Maria Shea found a sad irony in the difficulty parents now face in getting their children into the Eliot School. When her sons T.J. and Nick, now 13 and 11, were beginning school there, she and other parents were encouraged to keep an open mind about sending their children to the Eliot.
“When they entered kindergarten, we were literally asked to take a chance on this neighborhood school. It was so easy for my sons to get in,” Shea recalled. “Since a group of us parents got really involved with this school, now there’s a waiting list.”
The chance the Sheas took has paid off — last year, T.J. Shea was accepted into the highly competitive Boston Latin School. Maria Shea is happy with the education her sons have received at the Eliot School and sorry to see the difficulties that other families in the neighborhood now face.
“I feel really bad for all these kindergarten parents that can’t get into their own neighborhood school,” she said.
Email Jeremy C. Fox at firstname.lastname@example.org.