Op-Ed: Defining ‘quality’ schools and improving access to them

By Craig Lankhorst, Special to the Gazette

A year ago, Mayor Menino asked me to serve on the External Advisory Committee on School Choice (EAC). The mayor formed the EAC to help create a stronger school choice system. After a year of work and 70 meetings, we will soon make our recommendation.

As a former Boston Public Schools teacher and principal for 16 years and as a lifelong Boston resident, I am very familiar with the current school assignment system and the students and families in our city. I know there is nothing more important to our city than the education of our young people.

For me, any reform to our current student assignment system comes down to quality—and meaningful access to it. In fact, over the year, I helped lead the EAC’s subcommittee responsible for defining quality and equitable access as they relate to the schools in our city.

From a comprehensive community outreach process, and after listening to parents from Mission Hill, Jamaica Plain and from across the city, I know that different families define quality differently. For some families, quality is a solid after-school program. For others, it is having the right services available for English Language Learners or for students with disabilities. What is common across everyone is that all families want the best education possible for their children.

I find that the present student assignment system has serious disadvantages. At more than two-dozen community engagement meetings this spring, parents from every corner of the city called today’s student assignment system unpredictable, confusing and unfair. They said we should create a system that provides more equitable groups of choices and offers access to quality schools closer to home.

The Boston Public Schools, led by Superintendent Carol R. Johnson and the School Committee, are taking major steps toward improving school quality all across the city. I believe they have much more work to do and am advocating for these changes every day.

And, now, after reviewing mountains of data, we know that the current student assignment system is more than just complicated and frustrating. Many independent reports have established that is does not even deliver equal access to quality schools for students. In fact, one analysis released this fall said that blacks and Hispanics tend to attend lower-quality schools overall, while at the same time traveling further from their homes.

I am extremely proud that we on the EAC have worked hard to take the “best of the best” ideas on student assignment from community members, elected officials and parent partners. What we need now is your support. We are working to create a more equitable school assignment system that no longer asks families to complete the impossible task of visiting up to 30 schools and hoping their child lands in a good one.

We are closer then ever to creating a new school choice system that benefits students and families. The two “Home-Based” models provide each family with individualized choices based on location. They ensure that quality schools are included in every family’s list. Not everyone will get exactly what they want. However, the Home-Based plans are more predictable, more community-oriented and more equitable than what we have today.

Craig Lankhorst is a member of the External Advisory Committee on School Choice and resident of Mission Hill.


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