Assignment Plans Get Question Marks from Parents

Unveiling eight still-evolving models for a new Boston Public Schools student assignment plan, a community task force met with questions and confusion at a South End meeting Tuesday night. The meeting, first in a citywide series of 16 that will visit Dorchester three times in the next month, rolled out schemes ranging from the current three-zone design, to a citywide-zone plan with extensive busing, to a neighborhood-school model featuring 12 elementary-school and 10 middle-school zones.

The mayorally-appointed task force will report in June to the mayorally-appointed school committee, which will then seek to assimilate and implement a new policy, according to task force chairman Ted Landsmark. Task force members drew up the current bundle of proposals after a citywide 10-meeting series in January and February, and cautioned Tuesday that no solution would pacify public-school parents seeking a cure-all.

"The assignment model itself cannot ensure quality," said Lisa Gonsalves, a task force member and UMass-Boston professor. The rehaul comes amidst complaints about a complex and inequitable system, where some schools perform well and some perform poorly, with three Boston public schools named Tuesday to a list of the state's most under-performing.

Revisiting the school assignment plan requires navigating racially-charged waters still troubled by the 1970s busing crisis that rived the city along racial lines.

And, despite the eight models shaped by varying ideologies and practicalities, the task force acknowledged a panacea is unlikely.

"The clear consensus is about being able to send your children to a qualities - I would say high quality - school in the neighborhood," Landsmark told the Reporter. "Everyone wants that. Given the lack of facilities and programs, to make that possible on a citywide basis today, we are trying to address fair and equitable ways of increasing the likelihood that people can send their kids to high school in the neighborhood."

While the task force stressed that plans could change between meetings, of the proposals laid out Tuesday at the Harriet Tubman House on Columbus Ave., Model A reflects the current three-zone splitting the school's 66 elementary, 18 middle, and 12 kindergarten-through-eight-grade schools.

Model B maintains the three-zone model, but increases ethnic diversity and balances schools of different achievement levels across the city. Model C stretches the number of zones to four, while Model D ups it to six.

In Model E, elementary schools are spread across six zones, while middle schools are divided between three. Model F features six zones, with parents able to decide which represent their primary and secondary choices, then choosing three schools from the primary zone, with the option to make three alternate selections from the secondary zone, based on seats available.

Model G would most closely satisfy the neighborhood school advocates, Gonsalves said, "by [increasing] the likelihood of getting the school you choose because it limits your options," splitting the city into 12 elementary-school and 10 middle-school zones. Model H's citywide zone "provides total choice," Jones said. "However, it limits your chances of getting those choices," because it emphasizes extensive busing.

Attendees, who number approximately 30, expressed uncertainty about the plans, and peppered task force members during model presentations and a discussion period. Ethan d'Ablemont Burnes, a South End father of a three-year-old and a one-year-old, called the presentations "totally overwhelming."

"It's far too complex to be able to comment on it and figure it out in one night," d'Ablemont Burnes said. "I think a lot of parents were almost left speechless because you can't process that much information."

Landsmark admitted the presentations offered a glut of information, saying, "We have a large amount of data that we're not presenting in these forums because it's already overwhelming."

The models are subject to change between meetings, adjusted to the type of feedback offered by parents, committee members said.

"There is no one plan that we're going to come up with that's going to please everybody," Landsmark told the gathering. "It just doesn't exist."

The task force reported its findings from the January and February meetings, counting 730 people in attendance, with 862 responses to surveys of parental concerns, which lay chiefly with academic quality and location.

Teaching caliber and curriculum specifics largely defined quality, while parental involvement fed concerns about geography.

Responding to questions about why task force maps had divided Dorchester into north and south - designations which have traditionally carried racial implications - Darnell Williams, a task force member and the president of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts, said the distinction was strictly practical.

"I think what they were trying to do is not necessarily overlay [the maps] with the historical references that North Dorchester was black and South Dorchester was white," Williams said, noting that the maps may be re-labeled. "We're trying to make it as simple as possible.

"If we can get quality schools in every neighborhood, I hope we can get past the historical implications of what one neighborhood is and what it is not," Williams said.

Obstacles to the model-vetting process were illustrated near the end of the meeting when one parent requested that the committee more effectively alert parents to future meetings. Landsmark replied that past notices had appeared in newspapers, on radio, and on the Internet. Pressed about why notices simply hadn't been sent home with students, he replied, "We tried that last time, but we found that in some schools it gets home and in some schools it doesn't." In Roxbury, he said, busdrivers had been distributing fliers to the meetings along their routes, hoping to bolster attendance.