Assignment panel takes up three options for students

The city’s school department is putting three plans in front of the advisory committee that has been tasked with the student assignment overhaul. The options, all of which would eliminate the three-zone model that buses schoolchildren across the city, include a 10-zone model and two “home-based” plans.

Under the 10-zone model, parents could see three to fourteen choices on top of citywide options. Dorchester and Mattapan, neighborhoods that are currently in the East Zone, would be split up between five zones. For example, Lee Academy on Talbot Avenue would share the same zone with schools in Jamaica Plain; the Mattahunt School would share the same zone with schools in Roslindale; and the Chittick School would be in the same zone as Hyde Park schools. Most of Dorchester and some of Mattapan, like the area around the Mildred Avenue School, would be in one zone.

The first “home-based” model creates a list of schools for each student based on the family’s home address, according to the school department, and each student will have at least six choices. That will also include schools within a mile of the student’s home, along with citywide options.

The second “home-based” model would similarly create a list of schools, providing each student with nine choices.

The 27-member education advisory committee, appointed by Mayor Thomas Menino last year, discussed the models last night at Suffolk University. A vote is likely to occur in early February, with Superintendent Carol Johnson taking the final plan to the seven-member School Committee.

School Committee chair Michael O'Neill, who attended the advisory committee's Wednesday night meeting, said he did not have a preference yet and said he wanted to respect the panel's process.

Dorchester's Bill Walczak, founder of the Codman Square Health Center and an advisory panel member, said any of the three proposals offer a "more sensible system" than the current set-up. But there are wide variations in the number of schools, with one potentially offering up 21 different options for the Bowdoin St. area.

Walczak, noting Menino's charge to focus on allowing students to go to schools closer to home, said 12 children could still end up going to 12 different schools under the plans.

John Nucci, a former city councillor, agreed. "They're all an improvement from what exists today," he said. "But the question for me is whether the home-based plan might be providing too many choices."

State Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, a former teacher who has co-chaired the Joint Committee on Education, said she was still reviewing the proposals and voiced concerns about equity for students. "My jury is still out," she said.

Chang-Diaz said she did support parent "compacting" -- allowing a group of parents to band together and go into a school focused on improving it -- which was not included in the three proposals. Advisory panel members also expressed interest in recommending the practice.

Johnson all three models have "different assets," and said to some panel members, the home-based models are "more attractive." She anticipated a "healthy discussion" in the coming weeks, and a School Committee vote in February.

Parents and others will get a chance to weigh in at a community meeting scheduled for Monday, Feb. 4, at 6 p.m. at Orchard Gardens K-8 School. The Albany Street school has recently served as a set piece for elected officials, including Gov. Deval Patrick, who sought to highlight gains the school has made in closing the achievement gap among its students.

The 57,000-student system has experienced waves of change over the last four years, as school officials switched to a funding formula centered on students, closed nine schools they called low-performing and increased the number of K-8 schools to 25 from 14 in 2004.

But the three zone set-up has remained in place for over 20 years, and is a frequent source of frustration for parents and activists who say it leads to transportation costs that could be used for the classroom instead.

Under the new plans, two of which eliminate zones entirely, “sibling preference” will stay intact, according to the school department, and “younger siblings of current students will be able to select the school their older sibling already attends.” The changes that are approved will go into effect for students in the 2014-2015 school year, according to a department note blasted out to parents on Tuesday afternoon.

In all three proposals, Dudley Street Neighborhood Charter School and UP Academy Charter School of Dorchester, formerly the Marshall School, and the Hernandez School in Roxbury, will become city-wide schools. High schools would remain city-wide, while middle schools will become “feeders” from elementary schools. Additional schools would become in-district charters or "innovation" schools, with flexibility in hiring and in the hours they would be open.

The process of overhauling the student assignment plan kicked off after Menino’s 2012 state of the city address, in which Menino said students should go to schools closer to home in order to build stronger community ties. The advisory committee, chaired by Boston University’s Dean Hardin Coleman and former School Committee member Helen Dajer, has met frequently but has made slow progress as school department officials have provided reams of data, academics have provided complex algorithms for assigning students, and elected officials and parents have offered their own designs.

“I think two of the plans – the two no-zone plans – are a vast improvement from the original five proposals but I still have concerns about the lack of guaranteed seats close to home,” City Councillor At-Large John Connolly, who came up with a "Quality Choice Plan" with several other elected officials, told the Reporter on Wednesday.

One of the other elected officials, sounded a positive note. “Regardless of which final plan is chosen, BPS has accepted student grandfathering and sibling priority as two elements from our plan that are critical to families we heard from in our districts and across the city," said State Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry. The Dorchester lawmaker is married to Reporter managing editor Bill Forry.

A MIT doctoral student, Peng Shi, who came up with his own complicated model that wowed the advisory committee, said each of the three models presented by the school department has its own trade-offs. "There's no model that can fix it all," Shi said.

The advisory panel meets again on Jan. 31.

More information is available at the school department’s website: bostonschoolchoice.org.