BPS: JP picks safety over proximity for school choice

The Boston Public Schools (BPS) has completed the first phase of the attempt to craft a new student-assignment plan and is now reporting back the feedback it collected from community meetings and an online survey.

The feedback, which is compiled in a report released two weeks ago that can be found at bostonschoolchoice.org, includes the fact Jamaica Plain participants were more likely to select safety over closeness to home when asked about school choice preferences.

“It is hard to say specifically what JP residents meant,” said BPS Chief Communications Officer Lee McGuire. “One thing is important: we need to dig deeper.”

McGuire said when participants mention safety, they could be speaking about three different matters: traveling to school, such as an unsafe walk there; in-school safety, such as bullying, an issue McGuire said everyone is working on; and the safety of the community students are traveling to.

Another JP-related fact BPS gleaned from the first phase was that JP participants chose “school culture/climate” over “academics” for factors in choosing nearby schools. JP was the only neighborhood to do so. McGuire said he does not know why.

“We are really trying not to draw conclusions right now,” he said.

McGuire said that with so many people saying different things, “It’s hard to create one single report.”

BPS held three community meetings during the last week of June for the start of the second phase and asked the participants if the report captured what they meant. McGuire said BPS hopes to hold more community meetings in July, during which time analysts will continue exploring the first-phase data.

City Councilor At-Large John Connolly is also working on the school-assignment process, as he is trying to reform the lottery. He spoke at the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council meeting last month, where he said most people don’t have time to research all schools in the district and he is looking into how to give poorer parents equal information for a quality decision.

BPS plans to have several different possibilities for a new student-assignment plan in the fall and present them to the community, according to McGuire. He said the possibilities would be “more than just ideas” and substantial enough to garner feedback. BPS hopes to present the School Committee with a new plan next winter.

More than 2,000 people participated in the first phase of the process, up from about 750 who participated in 2004, the last time BPS attempted to fix the student-assignment process. McGuire credited the online survey with bringing in more people.

McGuire said another difference between those two periods is that in 2004, people were concerned with the quality of schools throughout the system. People now see more quality schools, but are concerned about access to them, according to McGuire. He also said people now want a bolder change in the student-assignment process.

Other interesting information gleaned from the first phase was the dichotomy between BPS parents and non-BPS parents. BPS parents chose “school climate/safety,” while non-BPS parents picked “close to home” as factors in school selection.

McGuire said one way of looking at it is that non-BPS parents have very young children, and when they peer into the future, they feel more strongly that they can partner with other families and work as a community to make the school better.

BPS parents have become acclimated with the school their children are enrolled in, are comfortable with it and distance becomes less of a factor, according to McGuire.

“They feel like they know the school well,” he said.

The first-phase report also found that “sibling preference,” which gives a student an advantage into getting into his or her older sibling’s school, and the “walk zone priorities,” which gives a student an advantage by his or her proximity to a school, both remain very popular.

“Sibling preference” is weighted more heavily than “walk zone priorities,” a situation that has caused concern among some parents, said McGuire. He said some parents feel seats at very popular schools are all taken by students and their siblings, leaving no room for anyone else, even those who live right across the street.

McGuire said that issue, among many others, would need to be sorted out in the coming months.

“There’s a lot to do,” he said.


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