BPS, pols propose dueling school plans

Boston Public Schools (BPS) and its External Advisory Committee (EAC) have announced five possible plans for a new busing system that could offer up to 23 busing zones, likely starting in 2014.

That was met with an alternative plan proposed by City Councilors John Connolly and Matt O’Malley and state Reps. Russell Holmes, Linda Dorcena Forry, Ed Coppinger and Nick Collins, announced on Oct. 3.

Jamaica Plain-based Union of Minority Neighborhoods (UMN), working as part of city-wide coalition The Community Coalition for Excellence, Equity and Engagement, is now trying to influence BPS’s plan toward a standard of equity.

“We’re trying to get marginalized groups involved in the discussion,” said UMN spokesperson Donna Bivens. “We think the [BPS plan] is being framed incorrectly and that the process is moving too fast. I don’t think it was intentionally done that way, but it was just done too quickly.”

The BPS overhaul, aside from redrawing busing zone lines, would also introduce a new scoring system for schools aimed at giving parents a clearer choice more quickly, and new special needs program distribution guidelines.

“Our focus is on quality, first and foremost, followed by greater access to quality schools,” BPS Superintendent Carol Johnson told a group of reporters during a round-table interview last week. “We’re on a mission to expand opportunity.”

The Quality Choice Plan, championed by Connolly, would do away with busing zones altogether and focus on improving schools all over the district. Parents would choose schools among the four closest to the home. It would also introduce 16 city-wide “magnet” schools.

More drastically, the Quality Choice Plan would also require mandatory principal and teacher evaluations.

Both plans would grandfather students in their current schools.

“This is not a step that we took lightly or eagerly. However, we are convinced that the Quality Choice Plan presents a creative alternative that focuses on improving school quality and bridging the divide between those who want schools close to home and those who want broad choices,” Connolly said in a press release.

“I didn’t think the existing [BPS] plan of re-drawing lines went far enough. The plan as proposed was not enough of a paradigm shift to address the schools in my district”, most of which are underperforming schools, Holmes said in a Gazette interview. “I thought [that choice and quality] could be combined through a paradigm shift in how we look at educating children.”

The five BPS alternatives currently under consideration were announced at a community meeting with Mayor Thomas Menino Sept. 24. The EAC will make its recommendation for a final plan to Johnson in November. Johnson will then make her recommendation to the BPS board in December.

The potential plans vary from a no-zone plan, where a child’s address would determine his or her primary school, to a 23-zone plan. Plans with six, nine and 11 busing zones are also being considered. The current BPS system uses three busing zones.

“We felt like our job was to reflect the variety of opinion. We felt like we needed to show all the options,” Johnson said. “We felt our models should reflect community input.”

The no-zone plan would have students attending schools that are, on average, less than half-a-mile from home, but BPS Capital Planner Carleton Jones noted that this would yield the “least diverse equity of access.”

BPS spokesperson Matthew Wilder said at the round-table interview that a one-mile walking distance buffer zone will remain in effect. That means that if a student lives within a one-mile radius of a school—its “walk zone”—that student can apply to that school, even if it is in another zone.

The five draft alternatives would either keep JP as its own zone, or group it with parts of Roxbury or group it with Roxbury and Roslindale. The draft alternatives still use an incorrect Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) map of Boston neighborhoods.

The current three-zone configuration means that students attend a school, on average, 1.48 miles from home. BPS stands to save up to 27 percent—and maybe more if higher priority is given to walk-zone students—in transportation costs by revising busing zones.

But “these [zone] lines are not in any way set in stone,” Wilder said, explaining that the proposed zone boundaries are adjustable.

Schools would also be rated in three different ways: by the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), by MCAS scores and by parental demand, to give parents a more complete view of each school.

The MCAS rating is used to display the school’s trends over the last two years, showing any drastic improvements or falling standards. The parental demand score would show how popular a choice with other parents the school is.

English-language learners and other special-needs students would be accommodated in each zone through the use of a separate plan that would ensure that adequate facilities and programs would be available. It would the same no matter which bus zone plan is chosen, though the current plan is not yet final.

That “overlay” system would create seven clusters. Each cluster’s population of special needs students would be analyzed to determine which and how many of each program would be required. That would allow programs to adapt more quickly to changing populations, Wilder said.

The BPS plan also introduces a “feeder” system, where an elementary school would feed one middle and high school directly, letting parents know what school their kids can expect to attend.

The Quality Choice Plan proposed by Connolly does not outline specific financial benefits aside from saying that any savings as a result of reduced busing would be directed at underperforming schools. It does guarantee students a K-8 school or K-8 pathway, avoiding multiple experiences with choosing schools.

There are three community meetings to discuss the BPS proposals remaining, including one today in Chinatown. There are no scheduled meetings in Jamaica Plain.

The BPS plan’s website, complete with interactive maps of all proposed ideas, a list of all scheduled meetings and a community survey, is at bostonschoolchoice.org. More information on Connolly’s plan is available at qualitychoiceplan.com.

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