BPS to talk school closures, assignments

David Taber

Boston Public Schools (BPS) plans this summer, to run community processes for two potentially controversial topics: closing some elementary schools and redesigning its student assignment plan—a notion that has come under criticism by local city councilor John Tobin.

“You may as well hold them at midnight,” Tobin said of summer meetings about BPS policy.

School officials began talking about closing elementary schools this spring as part of its Fiscal Year 2011 budgeting process. No schools will be closed next year, but BPS does plan to close schools eventually because it has 4,500 more elementary school seats than students, BPS spokesperson Matt Wilder told the Gazette. In JP there are 162 empty elementary school seats, Wilder said.

It is unclear if any JP schools will be targeted.

The student assignment conversation comes a little over a year after BPS backed off a controversial proposal to move the school system from a three-zone to a five-zone system. One version of that plan included a controversial proposal to turn Egleston Square’s Rafael Hernández School—a unique K-8 school where students are taught both in English and Spanish—from a citywide school to a district school.

This time around, community meetings about the two issues are coming on the heels of contentious city plans to close branch libraries privatize operations at some community centers.

In a series of e-mails to the Gazette in March, Boston Public Schools (BPS) spokesperson Matt Wilder said BPS hopes to present proposals for a redesigned student assignment process and for school closures next fall, following separate community processes that will proceed “on parallel tracks” this summer.

The Menino administration has been criticized in many quarters, including by members of City Council, for the short timeline and lack of transparency and clarity in its library and community center processes.

Asked by the Gazette if the city plans to handle the school closure process differently, Mayor Thomas Menino said only, “When we have proposals for school closings, we will always present them to the community first.”

Wilder told the Gazette the BPS effort would be “an extensive community engagement process.”

In an April 20 interview at the Gazette office, local City Councilor John Tobin, former chair of the council’s Education Committee, had some more specific suggestions. Meetings should be held in “every single neighborhood” he said. “Let parents speak first.”

And “don’t do it in the summertime,” he said.

Both school closings and changes to the assignment system have been broached previously. Last year, BPS Superintendent Carol Johnson proposed to move from a three-zone to a five-zone system—saving BPS millions of dollars in transportation costs, she said.

The five-zone plan sparked public outcry at first because it initially left Zone 3—the new zone that would have included Jamaica Plain—short over 800 middle-school seats. BPS’s remedy for that seat shortfall included another locally controversial proposal to turn the Rafael Hernandez school in Egleston Square—a unique citywide “two-way” bilingual K-8 school—where students are taught both in English and Spanish—into a Zone 3 school. General concerns were also raised about equitable access to schools in underserved neighborhoods.

Currently student assignment is determined with a complicated enrollment system that involves two layers of school zones and a lottery. “We are in the process of planning community engagement meetings that will take place starting soon,” Wilder said. That process will run through the summer and early fall. BPS hopes to present a proposal for a new student assignment system in the fall, he said.

BPS received a $250,000 federal grant to develop its new student assignment proposal.

Wilder said BPS also plans “on a parallel track” to run a community process in the late summer and early fall to discuss school closures.

Tobin has long advocated for smaller school zones and “neighborhood” schools. He has recently publicly discussed his concerns about the assignment process in the wake of his 4-year-old son’s not landing a seat in a BPS pre-kindergarten class in this year’s BPS lottery. The city is legally obligated to provide school seat for all school-aged Boston residents after they turn 6.

While he supports a broad community process for school closures, Tobin said, there are limitations to how effective community-driven planning for complicated proposals—like a new school assignment process—can be.

Tobin said he participated in a community meeting-heavy school assignment planning process in 2004 that included a citywide meeting at English High School in JP where eight separate school-zone maps were presented.

That process led to positive changes in the system, he said, including the institution of the “walk-zone” system. The walk-zone system reserves 50 percent of seats at schools for students who live within a mile-radius of the school, regardless of whether or not they live in the same zone as the school.

But the larger goals of the process were left unmet.

“You go to a lot of these meetings and everyone has their own agenda,” Tobin said in a phone interview with the Gazette. “Sometimes these meetings lose focus” with parents concentrating solely on what the proposals would mean for them and their families. Tobin said he could relate to that instinct. “I just spent five minutes telling you about me and my kids.”

Later, in an interview at the Gazette office, Tobin said people should have faith in BPS Superintendent Johnson, and the Menino administration should support her. “Let the superintendent do her job,” he said.

Tobin said he was disappointed that BPS backed away from last year’s five-zone plan. The plan could have been modified to deal with community concerns, he said. “Any plan is going to have holes in it. It [was] a start,” he said.

It was a mistake to “just retreat” in the face of community opposition, he said.

Horace Small, director of the JP-based Union of Minority Neighborhoods, said the community could get engaged in discussions about BPS over the summer if school officials “are very progressive about how they do this.”

If BPS plans to host meetings in the summer, they should consider “hosting barbeques on street corners,” he said.

Johnson and the BPS administration should be judged by their efforts to outreach to and engage with the community and whether they provide a forum where “responsible adults can be part of the decision-making process,” Small said.

“Engaging the community is almost a sacred process if you are doing it right,” he said.

Tobin’s view on assignment

In the interview at the Gazette office, Tobin—who served two terms as the chair of the city council’s education committee—said “trying to explain [the student assignment] process to my wife from Milton was like trying to explain spaceships.”

In broad strokes, elementary and middle school students are allowed to apply to any school in their geographic zone, or to any school in a 1-mile walk-zone radius of their house. Up to half of the seats at every school are reserved for walk-zone students.

High schools also have walk-zones, but are otherwise open to student from across the city.

The main years the assignment system comes into play for students are generally when they are entering elementary, middle or high school. In those years, students pick their top school choices and a lottery—run via a complex computer algorithm, determines where they will be educated.

Tobin told the Gazette he has long advocated for the lottery—currently run in private—to be made public.

“There have been people who have alleged that the lottery is rigged in some fashion,” he said. “I personally do not subscribe to that.” But a public event could help allay peoples’ fears, he said.

Tobin said one of the reasons he and his wife tried to enroll their son in a pre-kindergarten K-1 class was so that he would have a seat by the time kindergarten rolls around. Elementary school classes generally have 22 seats, and there are generally two classes at each school. Students seated at age 4 get to hang onto those seats through elementary school, making it much harder for parents trying to enroll their students at age 5 or age 6—when they are required by law to send their kids to school.

“I have met a fair amount of people, mostly moms, who say that [when their children are] four years old is the last time you have them to yourself. But you are forces to apply for a K-1 seat, if you don’t apply you are done.”

Tobin’s chief of staff, David Isberg estimated that the city could probably save close to half of the about $77 million it spends on transportation costs if the system was redesigned. Isberg participated heavily in the 2004 assignment policy conversation and who sat in on the recent interview at the Gazette office.

Last year, school officials estimated that the five-zone plan would save BPS $10 million annually.

Tobin previously told the Gazette that smaller zones would mean that the city could hire smaller local contractors for busing services.

In the recent interview, Isberg said a similar result might be achievable by expanding the sizes and seat percentages for the walk-zones.

The reinvestment of transportation savings in the schools could be an important part of revitalizing and providing equity throughout the system, Tobin said. “We should not have schools in the city I would not send my boys to,” he said.

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