Op-Ed: Making quality and justice keys to BPS plans

December 21, 2012
By

By Mary Battenfeld and Megan Wolf/Special to the Gazette

Nine months ago, Boston Public Schools began a school assignment review. The assignment baby is yet to be born, but one clear reality has emerged. Boston doesn’t have enough seats in quality schools, and the ones we have are distributed unequally around the city. In some neighborhoods, fewer than 40 percent of children attend quality schools, while in others more than 80 percent do. It will come as no surprise that poor, black and Hispanic children have the least access to excellent neighborhood schools.

The hopeful surprise is that equity and quality have moved to the center of the assignment debate. Unlike the “closer to home” plans unveiled in September, current proposals include mechanisms so those without quality neighborhood schools can travel to better ones. As important, the timeline has been extended so the mayor’s hard-working External Advisory Committee can consider new data.

Yet some believe that a promise of school improvement is enough. They claim we can assign students first to neighborhood schools and work on quality later. But this two-stage strategy risks the future of our most vulnerable children. National school reform efforts and Boston’s own still-struggling “Circle of Promise” schools show that it takes many years and substantial resources to make quality urban schools a reality.

So what should Boston do? Though some proposals address equity better than others, no plan is a slam-dunk score. But there’s growing consensus on what the new model must have to be a winner for all children.

First, it must improve equitable access to quality schools, both immediately and in the long term. The current three-zone system does not provide actual equal access, in part because it sets aside half the seats for families in a one-mile walk radius. But a new plan must not make things worse for the children who most need good schools.

Second, any plan must provide families in areas without quality schools a genuine chance to get to them. Factoring in socio-economic status, offering a lottery bump to children without good neighborhood options, or pairing zones or schools are some possible routes to equitable access. A plan also must offer children with special needs and English-language learners predictable access to high quality education.

Third, any plan must acknowledge that community isn’t conjured from the magic wand of neighborhood schools. It’s made when families from different backgrounds come together for international nights, science fairs and hearings on school funding. It’s found in vibrant citywide schools and in schools that draw more from neighborhood communities. Sustaining existing school communities while also building intentional new ones is critical to the success of any assignment plan.

We don’t know how Boston will answer the call of school assignment reform. Will it be with a plan that upholds the rights of all children? Or will Boston allow geography to dictate opportunity, and open up quality education only to some? One thing is certain. Justice demands excellent schools for all our children, whoever they are and wherever they live.

The writers are Jamaica Plain residents and leaders of Quality Education for Every Student (QUEST), a recently formed Boston Public Schools parent group. See questbps on Facebook.

  • momsmt

    I don’t see anything in the letter suggesting that Boston should keep the current system.

    I think that no child’s address should determine whether they have access to a good education and access to opportunities. Any new assignment system should allow every child a chance to go to a good school – not a chance that their school might get better.

  • Ian

    Has your group ever asked itself why these quality schools exist that you want equal access to? Do you think it might have anything to do with the community that exists around the schools, which is facilitated by the walk zone?

    It is really hard for me to understand how in the current system anyone can think that the main problem is that it is too predictable, and lets too many kids go to a school close to where they live.

    The current lottery system drives people of all backgrounds that have the ability to exit out of the system out of it if they are not happy with the lottery results for their children (look at the percentage of low income people in BPS vs the population of the city as a whole if you want proof of this). This drains the system of families and leaves only disadvantaged kids left to go to the schools that no one wants to go to. If you expand the lotto to be even less predictable then you probably will create more equality in the sense that you will destroy the good schools that are left and everyone who cannot exit the system will have an equal shot at the zero quality schools that are left.

    I don’t see why you can’t combine a system that makes available well supported city wide seats and opportunities for kids to lotto into good schools in another part of the city with a guarantee that kids have the opportunity, if they want to, to go to schools close to home in their community. Yes, this will mean that kids are guaranteed to go to a good school if they live near one, but with more community schools so many people will not leave the system, there will be more good school seats and then we can figure out how to get the most kids into the best school seats if their local school is not working. The key to doing this though is getting more good schools in the first place.

    I understand the motivations of the people on your side of this issue, but saying the solution to the state of the schools in Boston is to keep doing what we are doing, but more of it, does not make very much sense to me.

    • Maura OToole

      Ian, with all due respect I think you need to re-read the op-ed because no where in the piece is there a call for keeping things as they are. Quest is asking that any new assignment plan take in to consideration 3 key points-. IThe External Advisory Committee was not tasked with addressing the lottery algorithm- which has so many different priorities that make it a complicated process for most who go through it. It also was not tasked with addressing long term capacity issues that make sure there are enough seats for all the families who want them in the areas they need to be. At the end of the day currently and under any proposed plans there isn’t a plan that can guarantee a seat at a close to home school if there are more students in a “walk zone” then spots in a school. BPS has no long range plan to expand quality schools or build new schools in the parts of the city where there are no schools “close to home”.
      Personally I worry that a new assignment plan without a comprehensive plan that addresses the quality of schools will increase housing costs in the areas with “quality” schools and leave large parts of the city with no option but to opt out. As anyone can see from the popularity of programs like Metco and Charter Schools many families will send their children far from home if the quality of the school merits it. The Mayor and the BPS have an opportunity to shape the future of Boston with any plan, but should keep their eye on improving access to quality schools for ALL if there is any hope of quality community schools in all areas of Boston.

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