Online school finder offered as tool to help BPS parents

The Boston School Finder website offers helpful guidance on how to navigate the school assignment process in the city of Boston.

Priority registration for the Boston Public Schools is underway, with the period for students for full-day kindergarten and grades 6, 7, and 9 closing Friday, Feb. 4.

Priority registration for all other grades starts on Feb. 7 and ends on April 1.

For the sixth year running, the Boston Schools Fund is offering to help simplify the school choice process through its website, which provides centralized information on more than 225 Boston schools. Along with translations into Spanish, Haitian Creole, Portuguese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Arabic, and Somali, the site includes enrollment and registration resources for families to work with.

Founded in 2015 by Will Austin, a former teacher and principal, the Boston Schools Fund seeks to support initiatives aimed at reducing educational inequities. Its board includes chair Lisa Jackson, the head of social ventures at the philanthropic group known as Tides, and Stephen Chan, chief of staff in the president’s office at Northeastern University.

According to the Boston Schools Fund, 71 percent of white families apply in the first round of BPS registration, while only 50 percent of Black and Latino families do.

Those disparities in priority registration ensure that many students of color are shut out of high-quality schools, a phenomenon the fund seeks to disrupt through the Boston School Finder site, the organization says.

“I was a teacher-slash-principal for a long time, and a lifetime resident of the city,” Austin said. “Knowing what educational opportunities were available for some kids but not for all kids—particularly for Black and Latino kids in the city—I wanted to move into the world of teaching to address that. I taught middle school at Roxbury Prep for many years and then moved into a school leadership role there.”

Later in his career, Austin founded Boston Schools Fund “with the idea that, as a city, we commit ourselves to expanding access to high quality schools.” The Boston School Finders site, according to Austin, fits squarely into that goal.

The site is “partially based on my own personal experiences,” he said. “I’m a parent to three kids. I remember when I was first going through the school choice process for my oldest son – just the complexity of the process. The number of applications, the number of timelines. The way that different schools have different ways to apply. I remember saying to myself at the time, ‘Given all of the experience and social capital I bring to this, the fact that this is so challenging and difficult for me tells me that we’re really not setting families up for success in this process.”

Austin and his group polled families and conducted research over a period of six months. “We engaged about 70 nonprofit organizations and community organizations to better understand how and why families pick the schools they do,” he said. “Based on that information, we built a website not to tell families what to do but to give them the information they want and the supports that they report they need to make the best decisions for their kids.”

Austin said for city residents, there isn’t a level playing field to make such a big choice. “Part of the reason the tool is translated into many languages is to level that playing field—to make sure that all families have access to information to make the best decisions for their kids.”

High quality, high-demand schools tend to fill up quickly. “What research from Northeastern has shown is that since Boston went to this assignment system, Black and Latino families are disadvantaged in the process,” he said. “They are disproportionately assigned to schools that are lower quality, and that Black and Latino families typically do not finish the enrollment process as quickly as their peers.”

One local parent who has used Boston School Finder with success is Dorchester’s Liz Walczak.

“I’ve gotten to know Will and Boston Schools Finder through my own work,” Walczak said. “I work in the education field thinking through different aspects of education and youth development in the city. I knew that the school finder was a good resource. When it came time for me to figure out the school process for my own daughter, a kindergartener, I went to the site to see what information was there.

Despite her own work in education in Boston, Walczak found the school choice process daunting. “Boston has a really complex landscape of schools,” she said. “It’s a good thing to have a lot of great options, but it can also become difficult to navigate as a family. For our family, we were committed to finding a public option for our daughter in our neighborhood. I went to the Boston Public Schools and I knew there would be high-quality options, but nothing was a guarantee, and I knew I needed to enter lotteries, and there was more than one. The school finder was really helpful for us to understand the different options in the community.”

In particular, Walczak liked that the site “pulled information together in one place so you can see how all the pieces fit together and what the options are for families in the city.” She said that Boston School Finder also offered information on registration, links to learn more about schools, deadlines for different lotteries, and reminder emails for deadlines. Walczak said that the Boston School Finder was especially helpful in a year in which many in-person school visits were curbed due to the ongoing pandemic.

Austin hopes more families use the Boston School Finder site. “The thing that I find really heartening about school finder is that it continues to grow,” he said. “We’ve had more and more families use it every year. We had almost 30,000 users last year, and we expect that to grow this year. Especially during the pandemic, when the traditional ways of learning about schools are more limited for families, having these virtual tools are more and more important.”

This post was updated with an extension to Feb. 4. It was also corrected to say the Boston School Finder site sees more than 30,000 users.

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