Officials favor no-zone BPS plans, with caution

February 1, 2013
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Some Boston city councilors and a local parents group told the Gazette they favor the “home-based,” zone-less options for the Boston Public Schools’ new assignment plan. But most also expressed skepticism about how well the plans would work in practice.

Aiming to save money by reducing busing of students, BPS is considering three plans to replace the current three-zone assignment system. One plan would create 10 zones, while the two “home-based” plans would let students apply by a formula including school quality and proximity to their homes.

Quality Education for Every Student (QUEST), a group of JP and Roslindale parents, declared itself “skeptical” of all of the options in a press release last week. QUEST has focused on the inequality of access to quality schools in a system with many underperforming ones.

“The two ‘home-based’ models have more potential, but if the walk zone preference is maintained or strengthened, children in areas without any or good schools ‘close to home’ will lose,” said QUEST member Mary Battenfeld, a JP resident and Wheelock College education professor, in the press release.

Local City Councilors Matt O’Malley and Mike Ross said they favor the home-based models, as did City Councilor John Connolly, the education committee chair who proposed his own zone-less model last year. But they also said a lack of seats in top schools—or any schools—is an issue and that BPS needs to work on overall school quality.

O’Malley said that it is good that all the proposals would “create more predictability for families and allow students to attend schools closer to home.”

“I am also concerned that there are not enough seats in some areas of the city to meet the demand,” he added.

Ross praised the options for “creativity” and for keeping school quality as a goal.

“I think home-based is best” of the options, he said, adding that it is a good first step “if everyone has a shot at the four quality schools closest to them.”

But, he added, “I don’t think assignment is what is going to make our schools better.”

Connolly called the home-based alternatives the “creative options” in a written statement to the Gazette. But, he added, “I’m still concerned about the lack of a real plan for quality, the complexity of a system that needs to be easier for parents to navigate, and the likelihood that limited capacity will prevent BPS from offering real close-to-home options.”

None of the officials favored the 10-zone plan, with QUEST calling it full of “glaring inequities” and Connolly dismissing it as more “arbitrary lines on a map.” O’Malley said he is concerned the zones would divide JP and West Roxbury.

QUEST also criticized the public process. There will be only one public meeting about the three options before BPS Superintendent Carol Johnson picks one to send to the School Committee for full development.

“The devil, as always, will be in the details that aren’t yet known,” said QUEST member and JP resident Megan Wolf in the press release, calling for more chances to discuss the options.

O’Malley and Ross praised BPS for including some of their ideas in the assignment plans.

Ross got a commitment that, whatever the final plan, it will allow Mission Hill students to attend the Mission Hill K-8 School, which BPS controversially moved to JP last year.

O’Malley said he is glad to see plans to allow siblings to attend the same school under a grandfathering system; to provide every student access to a K-8 school; and the creation of more citywide schools.