Parents get say school assignment plan; few attend forums so far

By 
Meena Ramakrishnan and Gintautas Dumcius, Special to the Reporter
Mar. 29, 2012

Boston Public School officials heard all manner of responses from parents in Dorchester and Roxbury last Saturday at administration-led community meetings where the talking point was the ongoing reassessment of the assignment process. The comments ranged from the need to improve coordination between school curriculums, the need to educate parents about the differences of the various school models, to the need for better-quality schools.

Still, only 16 parents in Dorchester and roughly 20 more parents in Roxbury gathered to speak out about some of the challenges they face when choosing schools for their children. Two other forums were held that same day in East Boston and Allston.

Inside Dorchester’s Harbor Middle School, the parents broke up into three groups of four to six people and discussed what they wanted to see change in the school assignment system, a source of frustration for many and a process that Mayor Thomas Menino says is overdue for an overhaul.

The school district is divided into three zones – north, west and east – in elementary and middle schools, while high schools are citywide. Parents can choose a school in their zone, a school within a “walk zone,” or a “citywide” school. Students are assigned to schools through an algorithm based on priorities, family preferences, and a random number assigned to each student, according to the department.

City Councillor Frank Baker, whose children attend the Murphy School in Dorchester, sat in on one of the Saturday groups, as did a staffer from the office of Councillor At-Large John Connolly, head of the Council’s Education Committee.

“What I’m hearing mostly is you have groups that want to get back to neighborhood schools and they want their children walking to school, and then the flipside is the people who say all of the underperforming schools are within our neighborhoods,” Baker said.

And listed among the policies parents see as needing improvement: educating families on the differences in various school models, unequal distribution of resources for sports activities, a lack of coordination between school curriculums and inconsistent quality for students after they graduate from a K-5 school.

“Consistency across the schools is not where it should be,” said Maura O’Toole, a Jamaica Plain parent who works at the Harbor School’s library.

“I’d like to see a neighborhood aspect of the school, but you can’t do it until all neighborhoods feel like they’re being served by their school,” Baker said.

Attending along with Baker, who said he was there as a parent, were education aide to the mayor, Harbor School Principal Leah Blake, and BPS Deputy Superintendent Michael Goar.

The low attendance at the meetings could be attributable to parents waiting for a plan from the Menino administration after seeing school assignment overhaul efforts and public community meetings twice before over the last decade.

An advisory committee appointed by Menino plans to present a proposal to the Boston School Committee, also appointed by Menino, in December or January.

At the Shelburne Community Center in Roxbury, a few of the external committee members were in attendance, listening to what each parent, teacher, or former public school student had to say about the system.

Carla Tavares, a Hyde Park resident who spoke through a Spanish interpreter, has a three-year-old child attending a special needs school in Dorchester. Her main concern was the lack of a nearby special needs schools for her legally blind child.

Many of the parents were outspoken about how complicated it is to find the right fit for their children. Parent Ben Mahnke from Jamaica Plain thinks the system is fair to families, but too complicated. He said that if there were more quality schools and a simplified system, there would be fewer “losers.”

And like Tavares, he believes that young children should be able to attend good quality schools in the “walk zone.” Parents want better options than to send younger kids in the K-1 or K-2 system on a bus across the city in the three-zone system.

Odette Williamson has two children who attend the same pilot school. She echoed the sentiment about the lack of quality public schools. Parents she knows either place their children in private schools or head to the suburbs. Williamson also noted that if parents were better informed about schools, they would have fewer fears about particular neighborhoods.

On the other end, she believes that students attending schools in the poorer neighborhoods still deserve the same quality education as a student with parents who have more time to invest in hunting for the right schools.

“It’s also about getting poor kids to attend a quality school regardless of the neighborhood. I’m thinking of kids in Mattapan who deserve a chance to attend a good school outside of the neighborhood,” Williamson said.

Public school teacher Jen Spencer summed up a number of issues regarding the lack of quality schools. Because teachers are rotated around different schools from year to year, the status of a school can vary greatly. During her 14 years of teaching, she has seen the schools unprepared for the number of applications increasing each year.

“We need to know how many kids are registered to prepare the system,” said Spencer. “There’s a basis of knowledge that’s not being transferred well.”

Another community meeting is set for Saturday in Mattapan. The Mildred Ave. K-8 School will host the forum, which starts at 9 a.m. and runs until noon. Haitian Creole translators will be available.

More information on school assignment process is available at bostonpublicschools.org/choice.