Boston’s school assignment process is, once again, a hot topic. People who are angry about the options before them blame the assignment process and there is certainly plenty to blame. The Mayor has stoked the fire by saying very publicly that 2012 is the year that the process is going to get “fixed.” He wants more students going to schools in their neighborhood, and emphasizes how much this will save in transportation costs. We can use that gas savings to make the schools better. Does that mean that the “fix” is in?
The Mayor’s strong statement puts the School Committee (which he appoints) and the Superintendent (who has a hard time steering an independent course) in a tough position. As if the process is still open and she really wants to hear all opinions, the Superintendent has set up a special External Advisory Committee to study the situation and recommend solutions.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve gone to two meetings about school assignment. One of these was a meeting held at the Irving School by the External Advisory Committee. To my shock, the meeting was catered, which suggests that this committee has a budget for its work. At that meeting, the School Department seemed quite sincere in saying that it wanted to hear what people thought about the process. In my small group, one woman insisted on saying that the talk about school assignment being the problem was taking our attention from the real problem, which is the poor quality of education in many schools. I didn’t agree with her solution to the quality problem, but she was right about all the talk about assignment turning our heads in the wrong direction.
People, mostly those who had lost in the K-1 lottery, did take the opportunity to vent about the current system. They had lots of specific suggestions about how the system could be better, even without a lot more K-1 seats. One woman reported that she had decided to quit her job in order to work full-time on finding the right school for her child. A recorder dutifully took down every suggestion on butcher-block paper. I wonder where that information is…RIGHT NOW.
Then, at the end of the meeting, a member of the Advisory Committee asked a provocative question…”How would you like it if, instead of 15 schools, like you have now, you had a smaller zone of 10 schools to choose from?” One of the most vocal and disappointed of the K-1 mothers answered immediately. “I say…BRING IT ON!” She obviously felt that being in a smaller zone would have helped her chances to get her child into K-1, but I don’t see how that would happen, unless, in her smaller zone, there were fewer applicants per available K-1 seat.
I chimed in with a goofy-sounding comment about Boston already having experience with community schools (pre-1974), and the experience is not one we want to repeat. As if on cue, the facilitator shut down the meeting.
The meeting left me clear that we are headed toward some combination of smaller zones with a stronger preference for students within the walk zone of the school. If the Task Force is looking at that level of change, rather than tinkering with the current system, then these meetings should start with that proposal and give people a chance to say what they think of it. I had no problem with the woman’s question, but, given what the Mayor has said on this issue, that question should be raised at the beginning, rather than at the end, of these meetings.
I also went to a smaller meeting called by City Councilor, John Connolly. He is gathering small groups of parents from around the city to listen to their experiences with school assignment and to hear their ideas about changes to the system. It turns out that, after not getting a K-1 assignment for his child last year, Connolly’s family did not get assigned to any of the 10 K-2 choices they made in Round Two this year. What happened to the luck of the Irish? For me, that gives him more credibility in the school assignment discussion than his City Council badge does.
I admit it: I was very ready to believe that he was part of the “fix” for community schools, but I came away with a different view. He listened closely to a roomful of people who have had troubles with the system, but are very nervous about the impact of giving more walk-zone preference to all schools. Connolly and a policy aide listened carefully and then he asked us all to reflect on the fact that we are “empowered” parents, defending a system set up to favor parents with power, based on the ability to work the system. He is no devotee of going back to the good ‘ol days, but he sees big problems in this system. As he goes around the city he hears from lots of working class people and people of color who are begging for a chance to send their kids to a good school that is close to where they live.
Members of the group kept coming back to the fact that the discussion has to be about quality education for all students, not the rights of parents to get their students into high-performing schools in their neighborhoods. They did not see how increasing the walk zone preference is going to help improve those struggling schools that relatively few families choose to attend. They pointed to the “turn-around” school initiative as a program that should be given a chance before we make big changes in the way we assign students.
Connolly’s got my attention with his gentle prod to think about whether or not I’m out here defending a system that helps families like mine. I don’t often feel “empowered” in my dealings with the BPS, but (my bleating, notwithstanding) we have so far been able to work the system to find some good options for Connie and for Vince. I expect that we would have found those options, or ones like them, in a system with smaller zones, too.
Connolly will probably end up supporting a modest change in the direction of community schools, but I honestly don’t think he’ll be taking that position to please the constituency who wants to be sure that they can walk their kids to the Kilmer (or the Curley). Find a way to tell him what you think. At least he’ll listen.