Study offers mixed assessment on BPS assignment plans

Most of the proposals for revamping the school assignment process modestly improve black and Latino students’ access to quality schools, according to an analysis released by regional planning agency.

Boston Public Schools officials have put forward five proposals – four of them based on zones – as part of an effort to change from the current three zones, a system which buses students across the city. The proposed plans include 6 zones, 9 zones, 11 zones and 23 zones. A fifth proposal has no zones.

“Several of the BPS proposals might actually improve the opportunity for some students in certain low-income or minority neighborhoods to attend ‘high’ or ‘medium’ quality schools,” the report from the Metropolitan Area Planning Council said. “These proposals might also reduce the available seats in such schools for students in some of the city’s higher-income and predominantly white communities.”

A separate plan, proposed by City Councillor At-Large John Connolly and a group of fellow elected officials, shifts away from zones, focuses on setting up citywide “magnet” schools and allows children to attend one of four schools in their neighborhood. That plan was not included in the MAPC analysis, which used data from the Boston Public Schools website and quality index from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

The MAPC report called the 3-zone system “already highly unequal and segregated in a variety of ways…with students in some neighborhoods much more likely to attend lower quality schools than their counterparts elsewhere in the same zone.” That includes students in portions of Dorchester, Mattapan, Roxbury, Allston-Brighton and Mission Hill, according to the report.

Under four of the zone-based BPS proposals, “access to ‘high-‘ and ‘medium’ quality schools would improve modestly for Black students relative to current attendance patterns,” the report adds.

A 27-person advisory committee appointed by Mayor Thomas Menino is weighing the BPS proposals, as well as others that have been submitted.

At a meeting held at Suffolk University last week, committee members and school department officials heard from an array of parents who put forward their proposals, along with Councillor Connolly, who was joined by state Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry and District 6 Councillor Matt O’Malley.

“It doesn’t have to be lines on a map,” Connolly told the committee in pitching his plan, which he said melded quality with parental choice.

“You need an ambitious plan to effect real change,” Connolly said.

Asked one committee member, Savin Hill resident Bill Walczak, how his plan makes the school system more predictable for parents, Connolly said the “close to home” option in his plan addresses that. Zones don’t address parents’ issues with the lottery system for sending their children to schools, or the “huge” waitlists.

John Nucci, a former city councillor and a member of the advisory committee, said the plan was “well thought out.” Later in the meeting, he noted that they had heard a “lot of great ideas,” but he had questions about ease of implementation and whether what they heard can be transformed into an “affordable and equitable plan.”

The consensus, he said, is that what currently exists must change.

Committee members also heard six other proposals.

Bill Henderson, who once worked in the BPS system, suggested small assignment zones – between five and nine zones – for elementary and middle school students. “Offer bussing to parochial and charter schools but only within zones,” his proposal reads. “This means that there will be no BPS citywide schools.”

A self-described “Fenway mom,” proposed several plans, including one that allows all families to apply to any school in the city outside of their neighborhood if they are “willing to take care of transportation costs.”

All of the plans are available on the website school officials have set up to gather input and publish data on the school assignment process: bostonschoolchoice.org.