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Assignment plan overhaul: All key voices must be heard

This is school choice season for the Boston public schools and over the next month we will be welcoming parents to a series of school showcases to help them explore their options for next year.

Additionally, between now and early January every public school will host at least three open houses to help parents and students find a school that offers the right fit for them. (You can see the full list at bostonpublicschools.org/schoolchoiceactivities.)

We have created these opportunities because we are proud of what every school has to offer. More than eight times as many eighth grade students are enrolled in algebra today than was the case four years ago, and, thanks to our partners, 14,000 more students have access to weekly arts and music today than was the case just three years ago. We have raised the graduation rate to its highest level ever, and since 2006, we have prevented more than six high schools’ worth of students from dropping out.

Our students and families have noticed and expressed support for these changes. In our school survey this year, 94 percent of parents told us they believe their child’s school is a good place to learn.

Thanks to Mayor Menino’s advocacy for new legislation and increased resources, our eleven Turnaround Schools are improving even faster than the district average. The number of families listing these schools as a first choice has jumped 44 percent. Today, we are putting these successful improvement lessons into practice in nearly two dozen other schools that are currently not showing as much growth and performance as we would like.

As we continue to improve quality across our city, we must also reflect on what parents have told us about the school choice process itself.

Under the current system, a parent arriving at a Family Resource Center to register a young child faces a list of nearly 30 schools varying from ones right around the corner to others located many miles away. Even though 86 percent of parents request a school within one mile of their home as a top choice, our sprawling three-zone system has resulted in a web of school assignments that can be confusing and unpredictable.

Each year we ask parents to tell us what they thought about the school choice experience. This past year, one parent said, “I am 50 yards away from a great school and I think it would be wrong to have to go to another school when I live so close to this one.”Another parent commented that while she was “very impressed with almost every school I saw, I found the process somewhat overwhelming and daunting.”

Another sentiment we heard often in this survey is that “this should not be so complicated,” with one parent adding that “friends are being separated from attending the same schools” and still another pointing out that “it is impossible to visit all the schools” from a list that has nearly 30 schools on it.

The mayor has called on us to address these parents’ concerns. He asked our community to create a new system that helps children access quality choices closer to home. The 27-member External Advisory Committee on School Choice has heard from more than 4,000 voices this year in its effort to help us build something better and the panel is asking BPS to draw from the very best of the many ideas we have received from the community.

We are committed to answering this call. While no school choice plan can address every concern, we know we can achieve a better balance. The system we have today was created nearly 25 years ago, for a different time, with very different schools, and a less diverse community.

While we have plenty of work to do to ensure a quality classroom for every child, with input and ideas from across the city, we will create a new school choice system that makes sense for today’s children. This will help us build strong school communities that will serve our city and our families well today and into the future. We hope all our city’s families will be actively involved in this important discussion and decision.

Carol R. Johnson is superintendent of the Boston Public School system.