Report asserts that assignment system fails city’s minority students

An algorithmic system, implemented in 2014 and intended to reduce travel time by assigning Boston Public School students to schools based on their home addresses, worsened existing segregation within schools and disproportionately kept black and Hispanic students from being able to access top-tier schools, according to a report commissioned by the school district and released Monday night.

The Boston Area Research Initiative (BARI) found a pattern of disparities resulting from the public schools home-based assignment system. Areas defined in the School Committee presentation as “southern neighborhoods” — Roxbury, Mattapan, and Dorchester — had one-third the “practical access to top-tier schools” of northeast and perimeter neighborhoods like Charlestown, the Back Bay, and Beacon Hill.

“It is impossible for a choice and assignment system to provide access to “good schools close to home” when the geographic distribution of quality schools is itself inequitable,” notes the report, which assessed admission data for kindergarten and sixth-grade students in the 2014-15, 2015-16, and 2016-17 school years.

The report also made these observations:

• Roxbury, Mattapan, and Dorchester, “which are predominantly inhabited by Black and disadvantaged students, have very few Tier 1 schools nearby. Consequently, they had fewer such schools in their choice baskets, had greater competition for seats in those schools, were less likely to attend them, and had to travel longer distances to school when they did attend them.”

• Some 80 percent of kindergarten students in Charlestown, the Back Bay, Beacon Hill, and central Boston attend a Tier 1 school. In Dorchester, between 10 and 14 percent of kindergarteners attend Tier 1 schools, and in Roxbury, only 9 percent do. In Mattapan, that number is 5 percent.

• Roxbury took the worst hit for sixth-graders, with just under 8 percent attending Tier 1 schools, a number in sharp contrast to Charlestown and Back Bay/Beacon Hill, which have 69 percent and 62 percent of sixth graders in top-tier schools, respectively.

In remarks at the School Committee meeting, newly appointed interim Superintendent Laura Perille noted that she had sat on the 27-member external advisory committee reviewing the data and the assignment system. She was one of the majority of committee members that ultimately recommended the new system to the School Committee. “This issue is very dear to me,” she said. “I am in quite a different seat now.”

Perille co-chaired the data committee for the assessment and was among the authors of a 2013 memo calling for the equity analysis released this week. “This is absolutely vital information, so I consider it very important that we have this report here tonight,” Perille said. “While the current home-based assignment system might be viewed as a big step forward, what the equity analysis shows us is that implementation is not all the way there.”

On top of BPS’s mishandling of the implementation of the assignment process, the report found that the system itself failed to encourage the creation of good neighborhood schools and actually lowered racial and geographic integration across the district.

“The consequence is that students are more likely to attend schools whose student bodies reflect lower geographic and racial diversity,” the authors wrote. “These results were not alarming in their magnitude, but they do reflect a potentially troubling trend.”

Jose Lopez, chair of the education committee for the Boston branch of the NAACP, was searing in his public remarks at Monday’s meeting. “The report released today by the BARI ratifies findings about public education that we have known to be true for decades,” he said. “Most importantly, that separate will never be equal, and in a school district where address equals access, a segregated city cannot provide an equal education to all its children. Not without facing the problem head on and having the courage to act boldly and creatively in facing these imminent threats to our children’s futures.”

The home-based approach went into effect in the 2014-2015 school year, replacing a city-wide three-zone model with one that offered families “choices baskets” tailored to their home addresses. Students were promised at least six choices of schools, and if their chosen school was not available or there were no schools of comparable quality nearby, the algorithm would broaden the search radius.

It was a response, in part, to long travel times that strained families and the city budget, and it did shorten commute times. But it perpetuated existing inequities rooted in the locations of the city’s best schools, the report found.

Black students had 10 percent fewer schools in their choice baskets than the average students, while white students had 20 percent more than the average student. Black students traveled farther to school than their classmates, averaging about 1.9 miles and 13.6 minutes, while Asian and white students had the shortest commutes of about 1.3 miles and 10.5 minutes.

Individual neighborhoods, like Jamaica Plain, Roxbury and Dorchester, had limited access to high quality schools within a 1.5 mile radius, the report noted. “None, however, rivaled Mattapan,” it said. “No student living in Mattapan had a Tier 1 school within 1.5 miles of their home in their choice basket.”

Lopez described the findings as “an obituary,” noting that black and Latino students have fewer high-quality seats nearby and live in closer proximity to their peers, which increases competition for the few seats they have.

The city often divides Dorchester into northern and southern regions. In the interest of a comprehensive look at the neighborhood, the Reporter combined the data. Taken as a whole, Dorchester has among the lowest seat shares, and therefore the highest competition for seats -- around 1.2 seat shares, compared to 1.96 in Allston/Brighton or 1.87 in central Boston. The area defined by the study as “South Dorchester” has the lowest seat share in the city: 1.15.

The BARI report noted that the new assignment program did not create the existing inequities across neighborhoods and racial groups, “nor did it do anything to ameliorate them.”

One of the few recommendations the authors made was to have the city consider a system that accounts for levels of competition for seats across neighborhoods rather than focusing on pure numbers of desirable schools. If the goal, ultimately, is to allow parents to send their children to high quality schools near their homes, their report said, “a more effective policy solution is to establish a greater number of high quality schools that are more equitably dispersed throughout the city.”

In light of the report, Perille said, the committee needs to “figure out what modifications and course corrections are needed” to achieve equity.

City Councillor At-Large Annissa Essaibi-George said in an interview with the Reporter on Wednesday that she hopes the report pushes the city to fix a problem that has been simmering for far too long.

"We’ve known for a long time that the system is broken," she said. "The report shows us officially that our thinking was right, what our experiences were telling us is right."

The steadily ballooning student transportation costs should be partially redirected to the schools, she said, as often what makes the difference between high- and under-performing institutions are access to resources like nurses, librarians, and special needs professionals.

"This report is showing us that schools remain segregated, and transporting kids just to send them to a lower performing school — that’s not an appropriate use of our resources, for sure," Essaibi-George said. "If we took half of our transportation budget and invested it in schools, that's almost $60 million. What we could do on any given year with those resources would be amazing."

Jennifer Smith can be reached at jennifer.smith@dotnews.com, or follow her on Twitter at @JennDotSmith