Round One of registration for 2014 entry into the Boston Public Schools just ended. The most sought after kindergarten seats in the BPS have been filled using a new assignment system. Those who have not yet registered (or won’t register at all) will fill the remaining seats. The District will spin the transition as a great success, especially in the North End, Charlestown and East Boston, where necessary adjustments were made in the system approved by the School Committee. I agree that Charlestown and the North End did quite well in the new system, but East Boston??? I’m not so sure about Eastie.
You probably remember the news about the meeting last year when the Boston School Committee voted to change its approach to assignment with dozens of demonstrators shouting outside the windows of its Court Street hideaway. It was Boston politics at its chaotic and emotional best. That evening, the Committee voted to accept a new Home-Based system of assignment recommended by the Mayor’s EAC and then Superintendent, Carol Johnson. The new system had many problems, but one thing that at least I liked about the new system was that the School Committee followed the recommendation of the Super to scrap the walk-zone preference as a factor in school assignment.
The BPS has put up a new website that allows parents to go online, see their school choices and, ultimately prioritize the choices in their basket. Despite many bugs, this site seems to work better than I, for one, expected. As is often the case, the problem is not so much the website, but the way the system has been set up to bring children into the system.
Make no mistake, precisely because it is home-based, the new system favors people who live close to quality schools. That said, the new system supposedly avoided the double-whammy of being home-based and then also giving a walk-zone preference. That wasn’t enough for many in the city, who saw the new system as one more example of the operation of institutional racism in the BPS.
Fast forward to November, when the BPS began to prepare parents to register their kids for the 2014-15 school year. Imagine my surprise when, like the monk Rasputin, the walk-zone preference refused to die. First of all, the new home-based model would only be in place for the so-called transition grades (K1, K2 and 6th grade). Assignment of students to all other grades would still take place based on the three old assignment zones (that we thought were gone forever) and, as always, within the assignment zones, the walk-zone would be king. According to the BPS, the new system wasn’t practical for assigning students who weren’t in the transition grades, but why did it make sense to default back to a system that everyone agreed was not working?
But assignment to the “non-transition” grades was not the most maddening re-appearance of the walk-zone preference. East Boston, the city’s island jewel and home of Logan Airport, was the site of the resurrection of a bad idea. Forgive me, this is not an easy story to tell in few words.
It seems that, because it is an island that faces special transport problems, the BPS had “historically,” given Eastie families first dibs on the neighborhood’s schools (I’d love to know the origin of this preference). This meant that families in nearby neighborhoods, such as the North End and Charlestown, had less access to East Boston schools. People who attended many more assignment meetings than I did assure me that this was never mentioned during the months and months of meetings about the assignment system.
When the BPS launched its Discover BPS website to teach parents about the new system and enable online registration, the site contained the following language on East Boston assignments:
“East Boston Assignments
Due to its unique location, East Boston general education students, K2-12, are guaranteed an assignment in East Boston, if they so choose.
How does this work?
Customized lists for East Boston students will include all schools in East Boston. East Boston residents are given a priority over non-East Boston applicants for those seats. These customized lists may also include some schools outside of East Boston, but the priority would not apply for these schools.
Since this limits access for non- East Boston residents who also may have East Boston schools on their lists, these students will have priority to the remaining schools on their lists over East Boston students.
Exceptions may include program seats for English language learners, services for some students with disabilities, and middle school-age students, because some East Boston elementary schools have pathways to middle schools in Charlestown.”
So it turns out that the BPS has been sensitive to the transport challenges faced by East Boston parents, but it also sees the need to provide compensation to others who suffer due to the preference given to East Boston families for their neighborhood schools. And who are the suffering “non-East Boston students who may also have East Boston schools on their lists”? They are students from the North End and Charlestown. How many people from Charlestown and the North End would usually choose to send their kids to school in East Boston. Very few, that’s how many.
This “compensation” creates a problem, but it is not a simple problem with a simple answer. Many people in East Boston are happy to have a preference for their neighborhood schools, even though they acknowledge that several East Boston schools are not among the city’s best. North End and Charelstown parents are certainly happy that they will have preferential access to some of the best schools in the City. But what about the East Boston parent who is attracted to the very good schools on the other side of the tunnel in the North End and Charlestown, and willing to have their kid(s) travel to those schools? Sorry, Charlie (or Tina). The new system–which gives North End and Charlestown families absolute first-round preference to schools in their neighborhoods–will make it almost impossible for the East Boston child to get a seat in those schools.
At a recent parent meeting in East Boston, not a single Eastie parent knew that this change had been made. When they found out, they had different reactions. Many parents whose kids were already in the system didn’t think it was that big a deal, but one parent whose daughter is just finishing her first year the Eliot School said that she would have been furious had she been squeezed out of that opportunity. Her immediate concern was whether her younger son would be able to get into the Eliot, given this change. Others whose children are about to enter the system also felt that it was unfair to limit their choices in this way.
And so Assignment, Round One, is in the books. Was it a big win for Eastie? From where I sit, I think that the achievement gap came out better off than our island neighborhood. Unfortunately, the achievement gap is doing quite well in Boston.