Panel OKs ‘Home-Based’ assign plan

An advisory panel on the city’s school assignment system this week signed off on a plan providing students with a minimum of six choices. The plan uses an algorithm and students’ home addresses to determine the set of choices, which will also include schools within a mile radius of the address, on top of new citywide schools.

If approved by the School Committee, which is the proposal’s next stop, the plan will go into effect in the 2014-2015 school year. Students and their siblings will be grandfathered under the current three-zone system, meaning that the city will basically operate two parallel transportation systems for the next six years.

The seven-member School Committee was scheduled to receive the recommendation at its meeting yesterday, and after a round of community meetings, approve a final version in mid-March.

The 27-member advisory panel, called the External Advisory Committee on School Choice, voted overwhelmingly on Monday night for the plan dubbed “Home-Based/A.” Over a year ago, Mayor Thomas Menino tasked the panel, co-chaired by Boston University’s Hardin Coleman and former School Committee member Helen Dajer, with overhauling a 24-year-old assignment system.

Before the Monday night meeting, panel members appeared to be trending toward the home-based plans. The panel, which struggled with balancing closer-to-home-schools with ensuring that parents had “quality” schools among their options, had also considered another home-based model, known as “Home-Based/B,” and 10-zone and 11-zone plans.

“A school zone system without any lines, without lines drawn on a map, is hugely radical for Boston in the year 2013,” said Dajer, who served on a previous task force aimed at an overhaul. “We never came close to that eight years ago, and I think it’s a huge, dramatic, and bold move.”

Dajer said the plan will likely cut the distance students will have to travel by at least a third. “We’ve heard from a lot of parents that they don’t want their children on the bus any longer than they have to be,” she said. “We’ve actually heard from school principals who would like their children to get to school sooner rather than later and hopefully this will help address the school day.”

The plan’s transportation budget savings were a marginal factor in the vote, she said, since students will be grandfathered over six to eight years.

Bill Walczak, a panel member with Dorchester ties, said the new plan also allows for “parental compacting,” or parents gathering together as a group to improve a school. The plan will lead to greater parental engagement, said Walczak, who co-founded the Codman Square Health Center.

“It’s not ideal, but it is so much of a better option than the current one,” he said.

City Councillor At-Large John Connolly, a mayoral candidate and chair of the Education Committee, said the plan has “fatal flaws.”

“They can implement that plan and two years from now you’re going to have parents languishing on wait lists because they haven’t addressed capacity, there’s no guarantee to go to school close to home, and there’s no real quality plan attached, which is the key to building consensus across the city,” he said. “The committee did a good job in pushing the school department out of those school zone maps, but the plan itself comes way short. The school department let us down, again.”

Connolly, along with several other elected officials, put together a “quality choice” plan last year, which did not include zones and allowed for parental compacting and citywide schools.

State Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, who is a co-chair of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education, said the approved assignment plan is a “step in the right direction.” But she also called it a “lost opportunity to take action on eliminating disparities in our education system.”

She said she still had unanswered questions about why some plans rose to the top and why others were not considered.

Twenty panel members supported the “Home-Based/A” plan, while two members – attorney and parent Kelly Bates and Boston teacher Josephine Tavares – voted “present.”

“I didn’t feel adequately assured that in any of the models that quality was going to be maximized among children of color and low-income children,” Bates said.

The “Home-Based/A” model was the “better model out of most of them,” she said. “This has been an important process but really it doesn’t mean anything if we can’t ensure quality across the board,” she added. “Putting in a charter here and there is not enough. We have to improve existing public schools in existing neighborhoods in all communities.”

Kim Janey of Massachusetts Advocates for Children voiced similar concerns. Her organization did not endorse any of the plans, she said, because they still have questions.

Menino was informed of the school assignment panel’s vote shortly after it occurred, in a phone call from his chief of staff Mitch Weiss, who attended the meeting.

“Our schools have made great progress in recent years and are now showing results that some once said were impossible to achieve,” Menino, who has argued that schools closer to home will strengthen neighborhood ties, said in a statement. “Now is the time for us to take the next step and give our families a more simplified, predictable way of choosing a neighborhood school for their children.
The EAC members truly represent the diverse views of our city and this recommendation shows a thoughtful process that takes into account varying perspectives.”

The school department will be hearing from more perspectives. Superintendent Carol Johnson said Tuesday that she will be putting together a new panel of community members and experts, known as “Quality School Advisors,” to advise the department. The panel was part of the hefty set of recommendations that the External Advisory Committee approved on Monday night.

Panel members had been anticipating a long night, but the vote on a model came less than two hours into the meeting on the ninth floor of a Suffolk University building. The meeting wrapped up before 9 p.m. and the advisory panel gathered for a group photo.

“And it’s not 12 o’clock,” Coleman quipped before they disbanded.