Menino pledges: Students to get schools ‘closer to their homes’

Mayor Thomas Menino and his wife Angela are shown with their children and grandchildren after his State of the City speech on Tuesday night. Photo courtesy Mayor’s Office

Mayor Thomas Menino on Tuesday renewed a pledge to adopt a “radically different” student assignment plan for the city’s schools. In his nineteenth State of the City address, he also called for the expansion of neighborhood crime watch groups and the creation of an advisory board that would focus on the casino issue.

“Pick any street. A dozen children probably attend a dozen different schools,” Menino said. “Parents might not know each other; children might not play together. They can’t carpool, or study for the same tests. We won’t have the schools our kids deserve until we build school communities that serve them well.”

In a year, Menino said, a plan will be in place that allows for “children attending schools closer to their homes,” adding “I know I have talked about changing the student assignment plan before. We have made many improvements over the years. 2012 will be the year to finish the job.”   Schools Superintendent Carol Johnson will appoint a group to follow through with the plan, Menino said.

The current assignment plan divides the city into three zones for elementary and middle schools. High schools are city-wide.

“I know I have talked about changing the student assignment plan before. We have made many improvements over the years. 2012 will be the year to finish the job,” Menino said.

The promised move towards neighborhood schools drew a warm response from state Sen. Jack Hart (D-South Boston) and other elected officials.

“I couldn’t be happier to hear the mayor say that,” Hart said.

“It’s chasing young families out of the city and frankly only the mayor has the authority because he controls the school committee,” said City Council President Stephen Murphy.

Murphy said Menino’s last effort was marred by “hue and cry” from “certain groups,” who complained that the school assignment policy could not be changed until all schools are equally top-notch. “This isn’t Utopia,” Murphy said.

City Councillor At-Large John Connolly, who chairs the council’s education committee, said he’s pleased that the overhaul of the school assignment policy is a top priority for 2012, but added that he will be focused on the follow-through from Boston Public Schools (BPS) officials.

“So I applaud the mayor for really coming out strong on this, and now I think it’s up to everyone from elected officials to BPS parents to hold BPS to getting this done in a way where the policy will really change for the better,” Connolly said.

The process must start with the understanding that the current policy is a “failure,” Connolly said. “I think unfortunately, people view this policy as helping our most underserved kids and hurting middle class kids, but the reality is that this policy hurts the majority of kids in this city, from every neighborhood and every walk of life and every economic circumstance,” he added.

Connolly added that he hopes the task force will include parents who have children in the school system or are going through the lottery.

“I think too often this is a policy debate between two sides fighting about forty years ago and not about a new generation of Bostonians who can do better,” Connolly said. “I’m really hoping that it’s a task force that reflects a generation of Bostonians who know we’re better than our past and I hope it’s a truly independent task force.”

Crime was also a focus of Menino’s annual address, which drew a crowd heavy with elected officials, City Hall aides and insiders to Faneuil Hall. Attendees included U.S. Sen. Scott Brown and his expected challenger, former Obama administration official Elizabeth Warren, U.S. Congressman Stephen Lynch, Gov. Deval Patrick and U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz.

Menino said that while crime has fallen 25 percent over the last six years, “we must drive it lower yet,” noting that by the end of 2012, there will be 100 new neighborhood crime watch groups in the city.

“I’ve always believed the crime watches are the perfect kind of community meetings – no egos, no fancy titles – just a job to get done.”

After the speech, Menino emphasized, “I want more of those, I want more citizen participation, working with the police on these issues.”

A number of crime watch groups are already working in Dorchester, with the Columbia Savin Hill Civic Association attempting to organize residents by street. Several crime watches exist in email form, with residents shooting details out to neighbors on break-ins and assaults provided by police.

The police force will expand by 25 recruits, Menino said in his speech, and the “Unresolved Shootings Project” will also see growth.

“That’s important to me,” said City Councillor At-Large Felix Arroyo, who coached two children who were later gunned down. Their murders remain unsolved.

Menino, a longtime supporter of casinos, also announced the creation of a Gaming Advisory Board “with leaders from outside city government” focusing on job creation and transparency. The board’s creation comes as Suffolk Downs, an East Boston race track, is putting together a proposal for a resort casino, an effort that Menino supports.

The mayor said he is looking for a “cross-section of individuals,” including legal experts, to serve on the board.

“I want transparency, I want to make sure that the community knows what the mitigation is,” he said. “This is a very important move forward for our city and our state. We’ve got to do it the right way the first time. And it’s not going to be done overnight either. This is going to be a project that may take a year, maybe a year and a half.”

Asked about the board, Murphy noted the City Council will also be focused on casinos.

“The City Council is going to take up the question of the casinos and how it’s going to impact Boston if we’re lucky enough to get it,” he said. “You can have all the advisory boards you want to have, I guess, but in the end the City Council will be doing its due diligence.”

The state gaming commission, a separate entity headed by Stephen Crosby, a UMass Boston dean, is still in the early stages as well. The commission arose out of a law legalizing casinos in Massachusetts.

Menino also announced a plan to revamp the Madison Park Technical Vocational High School into a “career readiness and workforce development” school. The schedule and curriculum will be changed, and two chefs – Barbara Lynch and Gordon Hamersley – will participate in a culinary program and offer internships and apprenticeships.

BNN report on the mayor's speech:

Mayor Seeks Changes in Schools, Investigations from Chris Lovett on Vimeo.

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