School Committee Adopts New Assignment Plan

March 22, 2013
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Last Thursday, the Boston School Committee (BSC) voted to adopt the External Advisory Committee (EAC) on School Choice’s recommendation for a new system for assigning students to schools in grades K-8 in Boston.

The BSC voted to approve the Home-Based A option for schools in the city. The EAC voted to adopt the same plan back in February before putting it in the hands of the BSC.

“This historic vote marks a new day for every child in the City of Boston,” said Mayor Thomas Menino. “A more predictable and equitable student assignment system that emphasizes quality and keeps our children close to home has been a long time coming for our city. Boston Public Schools have never been stronger – and now is the time to ensure our student assignment process reflects the great progress we’ve made.”

The Home-Based A option creates a list of schools for each student based on his or her family’s home address. In this model, each student has at least six choices based on school quality.

This model ensures every family has high-quality schools on their list of options, as well as all walk zone schools (within one mile from home). It also adapts to changes in school quality and popularity over time and ensures a match between supply and demand.

“This represents a major step forward for our city,” said Dr. Carol Johnson. “It is a bold plan that strengthens access to quality schools, builds predictability and improves our communities while ensuring our schools can serve them well. This approval will allow us to focus together on improving school quality and access to quality all across our city.” The District must now focus on implementing the plan, educating parents and the community about the changes, and ensuring quality improves for all schools and all students, she said.

To make the plan work BPS will use MCAS data to chart two years of overall academic performance of students in Mathematics and English in each school (grades K-5) and the rate of academic growth. Each school is given a total score based on these metrics, with overall performance counting for 2/3 of the total, and growth counting for 1/3.

From here, BPS would group schools into four tiers:

Tier I: The top 25 percent of schools in BPS Tier II: The middle 26-50 percent of schools Tier III: The middle 51-75 percent of schools Tier IV: The remaining schools.

Every family will get a customized list of schools based around their home address (a “home-based list”). For Home-Based A, every family’s list would include the closest two schools from Tier I, as well as the four closest schools from Tiers I and II, then the six closest schools from either Tier I, II or III.

In some cases, these schools would be the same, meaning a student would have six school choices. In other cases, for example if a family lives very close to many schools but lives far from a high-quality school, it could be many more. The average number of schools on a family’s list would be about eight, in addition to citywide options. The list would also include all the schools in the family’s walk zone (within one mile from home).

To ensure a match between supply and demand, BPS would also look at three years of demand data to determine schools that can usually seat any student who requests it, regardless of performance. These schools are called “capacity schools,” and may also appear on a family’s choice list. Sometimes, these are Tier I or II schools –other times, they are Tier III or IV. Every family is given the option to choose from the three closest capacity schools.

However, not everyone is convinced it is the right move.

Mayoral candidate, At-Large City Councilor John Connolly called the plan ‘flawed’ because it eliminates the walk zone priority that guaranteed 50 percent of seats to children living closest to a school.

“A family living in East Boston will have the same chance to get a seat at the Prescott or Harvard-Kent schools in Charlestown as a family living in Charlestown,” said Connolly. “That same family living in Charlestown will have an equal chance to get a seat at the Bradley or O’Donnell schools in East Boston as a family in East Boston.”

Connolly went on to say that instead of putting these families in a cross-neighborhood lottery where some win and some lose, we could guarantee seats close to home and use our collective will to make every school in those neighborhoods high quality.

“This was our opportunity to bring quality to every single school and offer every child a guaranteed seat at a school close to home,” said Connolly. “Instead, BPS replaced the current convoluted school lottery with a different convoluted school lottery, and, to make matters worse, they removed walk-zone priority.  It is cruel to call this bold reform when too many children will be left on waitlists, without quality choices, and without a seat at a school close to their home.”

The old and new student assignment system, said Connolly, puts children and families in a win/lose lottery, and said the toll is devastating.

“We alienate everyone,” he said. “We push families away from our schools, trap our poorest, most underserved children in underperforming schools, and we facilitate the exodus of a diverse middle class to METCO, private school, parochial school, and most often, the suburbs.”

EAC member and former BSC President John Nucci disagreed and praised the plan.

“Twenty-five years ago I served as School Committee President when the current assignment plan was passed,” he said. “Now, 25 years later, with the passage of this new plan, the Mayor and school committee has given the city a bold new approach that gives parents choices of quality schools close to their home. It’s a historic achievement and I’m honored to be able to play a role in making it happen.”

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