School choice panel poised to make call

The advisory panel tasked with overhauling the city’s school assignment system is expected to choose a new plan next week after pushing off a vote on a model several times. A vote is tentatively scheduled for Monday (Feb. 25) at 6 p.m. at Suffolk University.

Four models remain on the table, advisory panel members say: a 10-zone, an 11-zone, and two “home-based” models that have no zones, instead relying on algorithms to determine which students go to what school.

Panel members and school officials say the current 3-zone model isn’t working equitably and are eyeing whether to go with a zone-based model or an address-based one.

“Already, we’re in a better place,” Helen Dajer, who is co-chairing the 27-member panel with Boston University Dean Hardin Coleman, told reporters at a briefing last Friday at City Hall. Several panel members say they are intrigued with the “home-based” models, since the algorithm provides school department officials with flexibility to change the system over time.

School officials are aiming for the final plan to take effect in the 2014-2015 school year, though parents will have the option of grandfathering their children and siblings under the current system, or jumping into the new system.

Two additional community meetings, after over 70 meetings in the last year, have been planned for today (Thurs., Feb. 21): One at the Hyde Park Community Center on River St. at 10 a.m. and another at the East Boston Social Centers at Central Square at 6 p.m.

The plans have drawn some criticism from parents who have called for school officials to slow the overhaul, arguing that the system needs to raise the quality of more schools before switching from a 3-zone set-up.

The External Advisory Committee, the panel’s formal name, will vote to hand over the final plan to Superintendent Carol Johnson, who will take it to the mayorally appointed School Committee. The School Committee expects to also solicit community input before its vote on a plan.

Dorchester parents have raised questions about one of the models, the 11-zone option, since it splits Dorchester in half. The advisory panel requested the split, originally saying the Dorchester zone was too big and would leave students with too many school choices. The 10-zone plan keeps Dorchester whole.

In an e-mail to constituents, District 3 Councillor Frank Baker urged parents to attend the community meetings, saying the 11-zone option creates a southern Dorchester zone without a K-8 building.
School officials say parents would still have access to schools within a one-mile radius of their homes, known as a “walk zone,” and a K-8 “pathway” would be set up.

Laura Perille, one of the panel’s members, said the Marshall School is being transformed into a citywide school, and noted that several schools, including Trotter Elementary, are seeking to become “innovation” schools. Under “innovation” schools, administrators are allowed greater flexibility with school hours and curriculum.

Mayor Thomas Menino, who set the overhaul in motion in his 2012 State of the City address, has called for students to go to schools closer to home. “I think any one of those [models] makes progress in making sure we have quality schools in Boston,” Menino said on Tuesday, declining to express a preference.