New assignment plan revives old debate on city’s schools

BPS Five Zone Model: The latest draft of a five-zone assignment plan. The school committee will vote on the plan on June 25. Courtesy BPSBPS Five Zone Model: The latest draft of a five-zone assignment plan. The school committee will vote on the plan on June 25. Courtesy BPSIn the history of Boston, the public school assignment process is one of the longest running tug-of-wars, with parents vying for neighborhood schools on one side and those vying for school choice on the other. Old habits die hard. And the latest effort to tinker with the map used to assign students by regional zones has once again become a flashpoint in the citywide debate.

Superintendent Carol Johnson’s revised assignment plan is more of a minor adjustment to school transportation routes, a change from three school choice zones to five. The corresponding idea is that schools closer to home are more likely to benefit from greater parental involvement.

Essentially, the map lops off geographically-isolated East Boston and Allston-Brighton into their own zones and reconfigures the rest of Boston into three pieces.

For Dorchester, the geographic changes are relatively small. The new Zone 4 would include all of South Boston and Dorchester just as the current East Zone does now, but it would add a new slice of Roxbury and lop off Mattapan and Hyde Park. Those two neighborhoods would become part of Zone 5, greatly benefiting from a connection to a bevy of quality schools in Roslindale and West Roxbury.

Though Dorchester’s new Zone 4 and Roxbury’s Zone 3 would include a slightly higher percentage of Commonwealth Priority schools —considered chronically underperforming by the state—so do the zones each neighborhood is in now. And many of those same schools have been targeted for changes by the district.

“This is really about trying to significantly improve the number of quality schools in the school system overall so that A, parents believe there are quality schools to choose from, but also to give students experiences that will improve their quality of education,” said Johnson in a meeting with neighborhood papers last week.

The Woodrow Wilson School in Dorchester is on the Commonwealth Priorty list for instance, and is now slated to become an extension of TechBoston Academy, a school that has performed very well. The Lucy Stone School is also merging into the Holmes School, which isn’t on the priority list. And then there’s the Russell School, which has been slowly improving its test scores over the past two years. In Mattapan, the Solomon Lewenberg School is closing to become the new home of the Young Achievers School.

The new plan also expands services to Special Education students with inclusion programs, and to English Language Learners with new efforts like a new two-way bilingual program atColumbia Point’s Dever School, and a Newcomers Academy at the former Thompson Middle School in Dorchester where the Boston International High School is also moving. Many other details can be found at bostonpublicschools.org. An upcoming meeting to discuss the plan will be held at the McCormack Middle School on Mt. Vernon Street, May 20 at 6 p.m.

In the newly released second draft, the district has also joined nearly all the schools in the city into feeder patterns. Students at elementary schools will be destined for particular middle schools, creating “K-8 pathways” that might be seen as a way to encourage families to choose schools nearby. A few other tweaks echo that intent, such as a new way to measure the “walk zone” around each school that expands its effective size.

Some neighborhood schools advocates are skeptical that any of these efforts will bear fruit in a school committee vote, and others are keeping a low profile to avoid “ruffling feathers.”

Pope’s Hill’s Phil Carver was a major advocate for neighborhood schools in past years, but now he says he’s sitting this one out, skeptical that Mayor Menino or BPS will ultimately back the new plan.

“This whole process seems to happen every two years,” he said. “Then when push comes to shove the folks up in School Street push back and nothing happens.” [Editor's note—this quote has been altered after initial publication at the request of the quoted party.]

Instead of taking the BPS route, he opted to pay tuition at Pope John Paul II Academy.

“It’s a package deal,” he said of the ideal school situation in his mind’s eye. “The same kids they play football and baseball with are the same kids they go to school with.”

Ann Walsh, head of the pro-neighborhood schools Boston’s Children First, said she is more confident the five-zone plan will pass, though with some trepidation.

“If the mayor’s office is not able to do it, it’s because he’s afraid that it would carry political weight,” said Walsh. “I think it’s a smart move in this fiscal setting. Everybody needs money.”

Overall the new transportation plan is estimated to save the district roughly $8 to $10 million a year, but that money isn’t particularly impressive to opponents of the plan, many of whom say the district has to fix the schools first, then change the zones. Though Chief Operating Officer Michael Goar argues that that’s what the plan is about.

“The plan itself is not about busing, it’s about access and equity for all kids,” he said. “We’ve identified capital resources and operating resources for all the school improvements in the plan.”

But without the new zone plan, said Goar, the improvements would move along at a slower pace “we would have less money to invest in classrooms.”

City Councillor Chuck Turner—notably under federal indictment for allegedly accepting a $1,000 bribe—held an organizing meeting to rally opponents at the English High School on Monday. The crowd of around 40 core organizers was composed of BPS employees old and new, members of the bus driver’s union, and parents from all parts of the city who fear that their children’s education will be interrupted.

Alex Pinto, who lives near Morton Street in Dorchester but sends his 10-year-old daughter to the Hernandez School’s two-way bilingual program in Roxbury’s Egleston Square, said he doesn’t want her to have to change schools again.

“It took us a long time to get her into the Hernandez,” he said. “There’s only one year and they’re taking the whole program out. It’s so quick, so slick they way they’re doing it.”

Turner also cites the example of the Quincy Upper and Lower schools in Chinatown, which will be cut off from a number of their students in Allston-Brighton.

“They went ahead with a plan that won’t grandfather in a district where 70 percent of children are eligible for free breakfast,” said Turner. “They’re saying to those poorest families: ‘Those places won’t be available for you.’”

Students are allowed to stay in their current schools, but the district will not transport them under the current plan.

But deeper than the details of the plan is an older, so far uncontested conviction held by many of Boston’s African-American communities.

“It’s more about the political power than it is about the schools and the students,” said Barbara Fields, a retired BPS administrator who once worked in the Office of Equity under Thomas Payzant. “Neighborhoods don’t get what they want in their schools because they did not have the political juice.”

Other than voicing general support for his Superintendent, Menino has not yet signalled a commitment to the plan. His opponents in this year’s mayoral race are unified in opposition to it, though each qualifies it differently. Councillor Sam Yoon said he would like guarantees that the money saved would go directly the neediest schools. Councillor Michael Flaherty said he would prefer a plan to slowly increase the ‘walk zone’ preference rather than touch the zones. The South End’s Kevin McCrea said he would approve of the plan if “they can show that all the programs are available and there are good schools with enough seats in every zone. But that doesn’t seem to be the case at this point.”

Yet it doesn’t seem likely that will be the case anytime soon and transportation costs will continue to rise. BPS is also seeing an unpredicted rise in new kindergarten student enrollments, pointing to higher populations and higher costs in the near future.

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