BPS Parent: The algorithm method is a problem when it comes to parents, children, and their schools

By Roy Lincoln Karp, Special to the Reporter

“You can’t get to a good place in a bad way.” I learned this Native American saying from Janet Connors, the longtime Dorchester activist and educator who helped teach me how to resolve conflicts and strengthen community using a restorative practice called Circles. I’ve been thinking about these words of wisdom since the debacle that unfolded last week when the Boston Public Schools announced its new school start times for the school year 2018-19.

When the changes produced an uproar from parents, Superintendent Tommy Chang argued they were needed to achieve greater racial equity in transportation resources. Currently, students of color bear a disproportionately high percentage of disfavored start times and the new plan would allegedly spread these out more equitably. But the equity argument is flawed for reasons of both substance and process.

The new plan would significantly increase the number of elementary schools starting at the disfavored time of 7:15 a.m. from 6 to 29. Even when factoring in the high schools, which almost everyone agrees should start later, 10 more schools would start earlier than 7:30 next year. The policy may achieve greater parity between students of color and their white peers, but it does so by reducing resources for everyone. As the NAACP and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights concluded in their joint statement opposing the new policy, “the burden of these changes would fall disproportionately on families of color.”

Leaving aside the substantive merits of the policy, the process by which these changes were made was heavy handed and top-down. Though the District conducted a survey of parents and teachers last year, the results of those surveys were largely ignored. Parents across the district overwhelmingly expressed their desire for start times between 8 and 9 a.m. As one parent observed at a packed meeting of the Boston School Committee on Dec. 13, “you can’t ask us what we want, then do what you want, and claim there was a robust process.”

Furthermore, the District did not meaningfully engage the communities most impacted by their changes. As another parent asserted, “you can’t have equity without an equitable process.” In other words, creating policies for and not with groups impacted by those policies is not equity.

One group that will be heavily impacted, children with special needs, is one with which I am personally familiar. My daughter Lucy currently attends the Henderson Inclusion School in Dorchester, which she loves. She is a medically complex former micro-preemie who feeds exclusively by G-J tube, walks using a posterior walker, and was close to non-verbal when she started school in September. In addition to all the typical tasks required to get a three year old ready for school in the morning, we also have to administer meds, end her overnight feed, pack medications and tube feeding supplies, and nebulizer treatment. An equitable process would have engaged families with medically complex children like Lucy. Yet the Special Education Parent Advisory Council, or SPEDPAC, was not informed of the new start time policy until two days before they were announced. Calling that equity is both insulting and sanctimonious.

I hope BPS will see this as a teachable moment. The thoughtful and eloquent testimony given by countless parents and students at the School Committee meeting demonstrated a strong desire of families to be more engaged. Going forward, the District should tap into this interest in ways that are meaningful and proactive, not perfunctory and reactive. Many parents testified about feeling blind-sided; others spoke of having their trust in the system breached. This would not have happened if BPS has utilized a planning process that respectfully engaged parents instead of relying so heavily on a computer algorithm. We can get to good place, but we have to get there in a good way.

Roy Lincoln Karp is a resident of Roslindale.