MIT plan on schools gets close look by parents’ panel

A team of current and former Boston parents is wading through possible ways to overhaul the city’s student assignment overhaul, including a proposal from a doctoral student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The group, which also includes education entrepreneurs and officials from non-profits, will meet next Tuesday at 6 p.m. to continue deliberations and receive input and analysis from the school department. The meeting’s location remains unavailable at press time, though members have been meeting regularly at Suffolk University.

The group’s work began in March, after Mayor Thomas Menino tasked them with shifting toward neighborhood schools and revamping the assignment system, which now divides the city into three zones and buses children across neighborhoods. The group could hand Superintendent Carol Johnson a plan at the end of the month, although the schedule remains fluid.

A proposal from MIT doctoral student Peng Shi has drawn interest from the External Advisory Committee, as the group is formally known, as it has plunged into fulfilling its mandate, which one co-chair has acknowledged as “daunting.”

On Tuesday night, one participant, Dorchester’s Bill Walczak, provided an update on where the group is at in its discussions. The MIT plan is “very popular” and “being investigated further,” said Walczak, a former Boston Public Schools parent and head of the Codman Square Health Center and Carney Hospital, told 30 members of the Columbia-Savin Hill Civic Association. He also noted that the committee is looking at the proposals for 6 zones and 11 zones, two of the five plans the Boston school department has offered.

One reason for the MIT plan’s popularity, he said, is that allows for adjustments to be made. The proposal would give parents a choice of the four closest schools, along with any additional school in their walk-zone. Underperforming schools would be grouped with one to two better-performing alternatives. The plan also argues for a move away from zones: “Even the slightest change in zone boundary drastically affects the choice options of families on the boundary. Therefore with zones it is very difficult to adapt to future changes in quality or demographics once the lines have been drawn. But adaptability is important since BPS is focusing on improving quality over time and since demographic changes add up over time.”

The proposal’s framework is also compatible with “compacting,” or allowing parents to band together and enter a school as a group, city-wide magnets, and changes to the algorithm used to assign students. A number of those elements are in a separate plan laid out by several elected officials, including City Councillor At-Large John Connolly, the council’s Education Committee chair. Volunteers were outside many city polling stations on Tuesday gathering signatures in support of the “Quality Choice” plan, the name attached to the elected officials’ proposal.

The MIT proposal does have a potential downside, which it acknowledges: The possibility of West Roxbury children receiving a lottery number that sends them to the Mattahunt School in Mattapan, which is not as high performing as other schools closer to children’s homes.

“One real concern is that middle class families assigned to a lower quality schools may simply opt out of the system,” the proposal says. “While the added predictability of knowing exactly which lower quality school [Mattahunt, in this case] they will be assigned to if they get a low lottery number may help them to focus instead on mobilizing the community to improve a specific school, one may argue this is not enough.”

The proposal also touches on busing costs. “Instead of having to pick up from anywhere in an entire zone, buses from a school only needs to pick up from either its close vicinity or the close vicinity of its quality partner,” it says. “Moreover, the quality partnerships are optimized to minimize distances. In some sense, the Grouped-School Model uses the minimum amount of transportation needed to deliver a given level of equity, and it does not bus when it does not contribute to equity.”

But the amount of money saved through a move to neighborhood schools may not be as much as some may think. Answering a question about transportation costs, Walczak told the Columbia Savin Hill Civic Association that the city must by law transport parochial and charter school students. “There is some savings; it’s not as big as you think,” he added.

More information on the school assignment process is available at a website set up by the school department: bostonschoolchoice.org.