Parents air concerns about choice plans at Mattapan meeting

By 
Tayla Holman, Special to the Reporter
Oct. 11, 2012

A small crowd was on hand Tuesday evening at the Mildred Avenue School in Mattapan as Boston public schools officials held the fifth in a series of community meetings focused on proposed changes to the city’s school assignment process.

The school department is looking to shift away from the current three-zone model, which has been in place since 1988. Although more seats have been opened up in high-performing schools, and graduation rates have increased while dropout rates have decreased, officials say there was still more to do to close the education gap.

The department has proposed five alternative models and is seeking input from the public. A sixth proposal, unveiled by a coalition of elected officials last week, was set to be presented formally last night to the External Advisory Committee (EAC). That proposal was not one of the options detailed by school officials in Mattapan on Tuesday.

“Families are frustrated with our current system for a variety of reasons,” Carleton Jones, executive director of capital and facilities management, said. “The biggest reason, obviously, is the city of Boston is not the same city it was back in 1988. In 1988, you had very different families who lived here.”

One issue parents have is the lack of predictability in the assignment process. Of the five proposed models, the no zone model offered the most predictability, as it automatically assigned students to schools closest to their home. While this model also reduced the amount of travel for students, it only reflected the diversity of the neighborhood and not the city as a whole, which, as Jones said, was one of the reasons families were frustrated with the old model.

Genteen Jean-Michel, a Mattapan resident whose daughter is in K-2, said she felt she didn’t have a lot of choice either way with any of the five BPS models. “I think overall, though, I wouldn’t mind seeing the 11-zone model, or even the 23, as my second choice,” Jean-Michel said. She did, however, lament the fact that there was such a huge jump in the number of zones between the two models.

Lynn Higgins, a mother of two, said she felt having no zones or multiple zones “pigeonholed” students. “If there is no choice to go to any place outside of your zone, a lot of these plans do not offer us [diversity] when you’re breaking kids up into 23 zones or no zones,” she said. “And the underperforming schools can still sit there and underperform because they don’t have an influx of students coming in from other neighborhoods.”

Another concern for parents and residents was the use of a “quality trigger,” which would give students who only have access to turnaround or high support schools within their walk zone priority in the choice process.

Odette Williamson, mother of a third grader at the Lee School on Talbot Avenue, asked if the trigger gave students who only had a high support school in their zones a second option, such as choosing a school outside of the zone.

“[The quality trigger] is not designed to allow you to cross zones,” Jones said. “If you happen to have only a high support or turnaround school within your walk zone, it would give you a higher priority to other schools in the zone over other students who didn’t have the same circumstance.”

However, Kim Rice, chief transportation officer for the city’s schools, said the quality trigger essentially gives students a priority less than sibling or walk zone priority, which caused concern among parents and residents.

“Non-high support could still be a low-performing school,” said Barbara Fields, a Mattapan resident. “What this would do is give us a priority to another low-performing school that has a lot of growth, but is still not there.”

Parents also wanted the BPS to be clear and transparent about the difference between performance and growth, as the two don’t necessarily correlate. “If you talk about performance and growth, they are two distinct things,” Ann Spitz, a parent, said. “If you want to say a turnaround school had enormous growth, that’s great. But if we’re going to talk about performance, we’re going to compare it to other schools.”

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