New busing proposal leaves Dorchester short

After a School Committee review of a controversial proposal to create a five-zone busing plan for Boston Public Schools rather than the current three-zone one, the only certainty is the need for further changes.

Preliminary analysis based on each school's No Child Left Behind status showed a higher percentage of schools in need of academic improvement in zones that would have included Dorchester and Roxbury, thus limiting strong schools to choose from.

"It's going back to the question of how much choice is too much choice," said Myriam Ortiz, Boston Parent Organizing Network's interim director. "Too much is when most of what you can choose from are schools that the state is not considering as optimum."

After presenting an analysis to the School Committee last week, Superintendent Carol Johnson said the plan would need to be modified, but she hasn't yet specified how.

In the current proposal, Dorchester is combined with South Boston in Zone 4. Zone 4 has the second-highest rate of schools scheduled for restructuring, with 43.3 percent of schools in the zone targeted. The Zone also has roughly a third of the 48 Commonwealth Priority elementary and middle schools in the city, those deemed in need of corrective action or restructuring in English language arts and/or mathematics.

In contrast, 16.7 percent of Zone 2 schools (Allston/Brighton) are in need of restructuring, and contains only 2.1 percent of the city's Commonwealth Priority schools.

"The crucial issue is how the zones match up in terms of equitable access for all to quality programs," said John Mudd, senior project director at Massachusetts Advocates for Children.

Mattapan, lumped with West Roxbury and Hyde Park in Zone 5, fares slightly better. The zone has 42.9 percent of its schools scheduled for restructuring and 20.8 percent of the city's Commonwealth Priority schools.

The superintendent's plan is an attempt to save transportation costs that total more than $70 million each year. The current three-zone map, drawn in the 1970s to address school inequality that disproportionately affected minority neighborhoods, shuffles pre K-8 students miles across the city in buses often less than half full. It was originally intended to break out into nine zones when schools became more equitable across the city, an assumed progress that never occurred to the degree that would make that many equal zones possible.

"People in communities of color believed they were treated inequitably," said Mudd. "They must not get trapped again in a position that narrows their choice to schools that will fail their children."

Mudd said any plan must insure each zone has equal programs such as advanced work classes, pathways to exam schools, two-way bilingual programs and special education inclusion classes. He further suggested comparing data for neighborhoods and not just the zones.

Another concern is a lack of middle school seats for Zone 3 and 4 students, with a surplus in other areas.

According to BPS, the new school zone map was drafted based on demographics, the quality of schools per zone and choice data.

BPS officials argue a switch to more zones aligns with school choice data showing a preference for sending students to schools close to home. Data show 72.5 percent of first and second choices for the current school year were for buildings no more than three miles away.

How the plan could be modified to better balance the zones is not clear. Tinkering with the borders may not be the answer, according to BPS Chief Operating Officer Michael Goar.

"It's not just about changing boundaries, but ensuring all students have access to high-quality education," he said. "I don't think boundaries are the issue. Whatever zones we create, it will not be equitable because people judge equality different."

Goar said the district will focus on improving performance across the board for all schools.

The identification of inequalities in the study is beneficial, according to Ortiz.

"I think this is an opportunity to really make an analysis of the five proposed zones and really begin to look at what it would take to make them zones that parents will want their children to stay in," she said.

Ortiz suggested looking at schools that are succeeding, such as the Hernández K-8 School and the Timilty Middle School, and replicating their programs instead of reinventing the wheel.

BPS is currently grappling with a $46 million cut to its budget. The School Committee is considering modifying the busing plan as one way to save costs. Other possibilities include closing schools and the elimination of more than 900 district positions, including some 400 teaching jobs. The teachers union has been asked to accept a wage freeze as well.

School Committee Chair Rev. Gregory Groover did not return calls for comment.

The new five-zone plan is estimated to save $10 million once fully implemented.

Federal stimulus package dollars would help, but not solve budgetary problems, according to Goar. The district expects to receive $58 million in federal funds by September.

Goar said the funds must be "strategically invested" since they are not recurring. Only a portion will be used to cover the budget gap and the rest will be dedicated toward goals such as raising test scores and increasing the graduation rate.

It is not clear what, if any, changes will be made to student assignments in time for next school year. The School Committee must decide by March 25, the day the budget is due.

Parents will have an opportunity voice their concerns about the plan at two budget hearings scheduled for Tuesday, March 10, at 6 p.m. at English High School and Wednesday, March 11, at BPS headquarters, 26 Court St.