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Real issues, hard choices in school zoning reform

The current Boston school assignment plan which buses students long distances in 3 zones is unsustainable. From this educator’s perspective, Boston city leaders need to craft a plan which remedies the following daily problems.

Too many students are spending over 90 minutes each day on buses. (Imagine this with young children and those with complex disabilities.) Too many students are starting instruction well after 9:25 a.m., squandering some of the best time in a child’s day and inconveniencing parents. Too many students are not able to stay and benefit from extended day enrichment programs.

Most of the proposed plans recommending student assignment changes acknowledge the need for smaller geographic zones with anywhere between 4 – 9 school options per zone for elementary aged students. Parent feedback, enrichment programs, and individual student academic growth should be considered as important factors in determining quality as well as overall test scores. All families, including those with lower incomes, deserve to have quality options, and this might necessitate offering a greater number of overall choices and with additional resources in certain areas of the city.
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Students should be able to walk across zone boundaries. In other words, family should be able to choose among those schools within their walk zone as well as those within their assignment zone. Most students with disabilities and English Language Learners should have the opportunity to learn within their new zones. There also needs to be more inclusive and dual language options.

While it is critical for Boston leaders to examine the many recommendations for ensuring that each smaller zone would have as many “quality” school options as possible, there is no way to eliminate all inequities. Instead, Boston should acknowledge where such disparities persist and take identifiable steps to mitigate with resources and proven school interventions.

In crafting the final plan there are two areas which need to be examined carefully – city-wide busing and grandfathering with busing. Otherwise, Boston could be implementing a new assignment plan that could reduce the total numbers of students on buses and still increase overall transportation time and costs.

City-wide busing

Boston is already providing citywide busing for most charter schools and for a few district magnet schools. On a daily basis, children are being transported across the city from areas like Hyde Park to East Boston or from Dorchester to Allston / Brighton. Some might argue that the numbers of students currently being bussed such large distances are relatively small. However, it is costly to do this even if there are only a few students per bus, and it limits the timeliness of buses for future runs. Too many Boston Schools are already getting stuck with the third tier, 9:25 a.m. start time. There will probably be more charters in future years, and some have proposed more citywide magnets. Perhaps charters as well as magnets though, should just serve elementary and middle school students from designated geographic areas and not from the entire city. Otherwise, a new plan could further exacerbate Boston’s extensive busing time as well as costs.

Grandfathering

Grandfathering for student assignments allows for the right to stay at one’s existing school even if that school does not fall within one’s new assignment zone. Almost everyone would agree that students and their siblings should be able to stay at their same school until they leave at the exit grades. However, for how long should Boston automatically provide busing for schools located out of the new zones? Grandfathering with busing would require the School Department to continue transporting some students in K-5 schools for up to 6 additional years and some students in K-8 schools for up to 9 additional years to schools located far away from the new zones. This means that Boston could be transporting students from the same neighborhoods to different zones in opposite directions. A dual transportation system would cost many extra dollars until all students phase-out of their grandfathered schools.

Perhaps city leaders should consider grandfathering but without guaranteeing long-term busing. This would quickly save a great deal of money, but it would unfairly impact poor families who would have fewer resources to transport their children to the out-of-zone grandfathered schools. City leaders could be creative in targeting substantial portions of the monies saved from reduced busing costs to better serve students from poor families. Allocations for children whose families qualify for free and reduced lunches could be increased on a per capita basis either to all schools across the city or to schools receiving students displaced from the old zones. These additional resources could be used to accelerate academic learning, to extend the school day with enrichment programs, and to provide critically needed technology tools and educational materials. All options to minimize inequities exacerbated by lower economic status should be explored.

As city leaders work together to finalize a new student assignment plan, their recommendations must deal with these practicalities affecting overall busing time and costs as well as with the ongoing quest of providing quality options for all Boston’s children.

Bill Henderson worked for the Boston Public Schools for 36 years and is also a parent whose children attended 6 different Boston schools.