Tag Archives: Boston School Assignment

Why can’t all Fox news be like this?

For Every ChildThe Parent Imperfect has been consistently critical of the Boston Globe’s coverage of debates around the future of public education in Boston and the Commonwealth. In its editorials and signed columns, the Globe has consistently belittled elected officials and anyone else who failed to see the wisdom of continued expansion of the charter school sector, and the paper’s other pet policies. The day-to-day reporting on the topic has not been so monolithic, but has failed to capture the nuances of the equity arguments against education reform, as it is now being practiced. It is certainly not the Globe’s job to agree with me, but is it asking too much to hope that Boston’s most influential daily could at least offer a reasonable picture of opposing views?

Apparently not, as the December 4 Globe article entitled, “Walsh Taking Heat Over School Agenda,” by Jeremy Fox, took an important step in that direction. Even I can give credit where credit is due, and much credit is due here. If the article had one shortcoming, it focused a bit too much on a single parent group, QUEST. I am well aware of that organization’s importance, but there are actually a growing number of organizations, individuals and elected officials raising questions about Enroll Boston and other City Hall education policies. Focusing on a single organization justifies an attitude of “the dogs will bark, but the caravan rolls along,” among decision makers. But this is small potatoes, compared to value of this sort of reporting.

Fix Don't PrivatizeFor this article, Fox interviews both Mayor Walsh and Boston parents critical of what they see as the direction of his education policy. He then presents the opposing views in a way that captures what both sides are saying, without editorializing. Transcending the recent kerfluffle about the number school closings planned, the article reports what parents actually heard from the Mayor in a September 29 meeting at City Hall. I have it on very good (though imperfect) authority that the Mayor said, in talking about BPS facilities, that “We’re going to get down to ninety buildings.” That doesn’t suggest any particular number of school closings, but it certainly suggests a consolidation from the present use of 125 or 126 school buildings. When Fox asked the Mayor about those alleged remarks, rather than answer the question, the Mayor felt the need to deny that he has a plan to close schools. Thou doth protest too much…

In the interest of full disclosure, I must note that the December 4 article also met the litmus test of all good journalism by providing a link to my own description of the raucous Jamaica Plain meeting concerning the Mayor’s proposal to unify charter and public school enrollment systems. That, too, was a Globe first. In all modesty, I do think that the link strengthened the article (and sent many newbys into the arms of the PI), but the clear presentation of both sides of the argument is what really distinguishes the piece.

LilliputThings are about to get even less polite in the public debate about the future of our public schools. Partners from three of Boston’s most prestigious (and deep-pocketed) law firms are moving forward with a suit charging the Commonwealth with civil rights violations for placing a cap on charter school growth. Our Governor and Education Secretary have proposed legislation that is more “bullish” on charter schools than anything the boldest charter school advocate would have dared to ask for, even two years ago. Charter school PR consultants are spinning at top speed in support of a ballot question designed to bludgeon the State Senate into submission on the question of the charter school cap. And against this troubling backdrop, the elected champion of Boston’s public schools shows every sign that he is out to earn his recent “Lifetime Achievement” award from the state’s charter school association. A formidable, multi-headed, giant is getting its bearings and piling up gold bars, but the Lilliputians are quietly untangling their ropes.

RumorsThe Globe article ends with a telling quote from Mayor Walsh. “It’s my understanding that QUEST is a parent organization…out there advocating for kids. We should stick to the advocacy for kids and not focus on rumors.” Ok…but just what “rumors” is the Mayor talking about? Is it the rumor that he said that “we’re going to get down to 90 buildings?” Or maybe its the rumor that he has proposed relaxing the cap on charter schools in Boston? Or the one that he is in favor putting important responsibilities around Boston school enrollment in the hands of a scantily qualified organization that operates with little or no public accountability? No, no, he’s probably referring to the rumor that documents obtained by Quest (from the Mayor’s office, by the way) refer to discussions regarding possible co-location of charters and public schools. Sorry, but I read all of these as related facts…dots to be connected, not rumors.

When important discussions are happening behind closed doors, and parents and other stakeholders get their information on a “need to know” basis, people will start to put together what they do know in an attempt to understand what’s going on. Errors may happen when people don’t have information, but more transparency and accountability, rather than criticism and tighter secrecy, is the way to clear up such misunderstandings.

 

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What could be wrong with Unified School Enrollment?

UE FlyerThe Parent Imperfect has watched with concern the rapid rise of the idea of “Unified School Enrollment” in Boston. This idea is being presented as a proposal by the Boston School Compact (more about the Compact later). Overnight, this idea has gone from the big vat of ideas that get talked about, but never acted on, to one of Mayor Walsh’s main priorities. I wish it had continued to float in the vat. Marty did not support this idea in his campaign, but he is certainly behind it now. In fact, it feels as if he and his Education Advisor are driving it.

The idea is simply  to include Boston charter schools in the Boston Public Schools’ assignment lottery. Those schools would then appear in families’ “basket” of schools to which they are eligible to apply for their children. Rather than have to do a different application for each charter lottery, families could apply to charter schools through the BPS’s own Home-Based Assignment process.

What’s not to like? Rather than have to fill out a bunch of separate applications for their children, and then keep track of separate applications processes, parents can fill out a single application and then follow through on that one. Even an imperfect parent, has got to like that, right?

Wrong. My look below the spin on Unified Enrollment suggests that it’s something that is likely to cause more problems than it solves. When I see “Unified Enrollment,” I read,”Not really unified enrollment, based on a shaky foundation and mixing radically different schools together without giving the “customers” (us parents) the information we need to make such an important decision. ” Here’s why.

Is unified enrollment really “unified”?

First of all, charters will choose whether or not they want to be part of Unified Enrollment. Since the BPS Home-Based plan requires that access to schools be geographically restricted, charters will have to accept this “neighborhood” restriction in order to play. Because the law creating charters requires that they be either district-wide or regional, Unified Enrollment would require that the Massachusetts Legislature approve a “home rule” petition allowing Boston an exemption from this law. Assuming such a law could be passed (no sure thing), I would be willing to bet that some charters will say, “No, thank you. We quite like to be able to draw our students from the entire City of Boston. We don’t care to get entangled in the BPS lottery system, and limit who can apply to our school.”

So, what happens is some charters are in a Unified Enrollment system and some aren’t? Chaos. A chaos different than the current chaos, but chaos, nonetheless. For me, this could easily be more confusing for parents than the current system, where at least I know that if I want to apply for a charter school for my child, I must apply directly to that school. The only way that Unified Enrollment is truly “Unified” is if all charters decide to play, and this is not likely, at all.

Bad foundation, bad building

Home-based AssignmentBut let’s just suppose that by some near miracle, all charters decided to join the Unified Enrollment scheme. Then there would truly be one application for charters and public schools, but that system would be built on the foundation of the current Home-Based system. As part of getting this controversial system adopted, both the  BPS and Mayor Menino’s Education Advisory Committee assured the community that the new system would be carefully evaluated by some independent oversight group. This has never happened.

In the absence of any apparent assessment of how the Home-Based System is working, the parent group, QUEST, requested data on assignment results. That was 18 months ago, and no data has been forthcoming. Maybe the BPS knows very well that the new system is not working as advertised, so they prefer not to share the evidence. But no matter, it is unacceptable to talk about building a complex new system on top of a recently-implemented Home-Based plan that has never been evaluated. Let’s look at how the Home-Based system is working, and fix it, if necessary, before we build something on top of it.

Mixing apples and oranges…without telling anyone

But let’s say all charters are going to participate in the Unified Enrollment System AND the current system is working fine and makes just a fine foundation for the inclusion of charters. Even if those two unlikely things were true, there would still be many questions about Unified Enrollment. Many such questions center on the dangers of mixing very different kinds of schools in a choice “basket,” without really informing parents about those choices.

For example, a family from Hyde Park applying for the BPS would very likely have several charter schools in their “basket” of school choices. Those charters may include some of the Level One schools in their basket (schools with the highest test grades, at this point). The BPS currently does quite a poor job of communicating to parents the many differences between district schools. Parents who have the time and resources to tour multiple schools to find out the facts for themselves have a great advantage over the majority of parents who just can’t do that.

mixing fruitWill the BPS adequately communicate to our imaginary family that one of the charter schools has high test scores, but also has an incredibly strict discipline policy and suspension rates–especially for boys of color–that are off the charts? Will that family know that another Level One charter in its choice basket is poorly equipped to serve English Language Learners and, therefore, has a very small percentage of ELL students? This is only one of the many unforeseen problems that will arise as the BPS attempts to mix privately-managed charter schools with public schools in its assignment system.

A “Compact” solution?

One raising almost any question about Unified Enrollment is told that the originator of the proposal, The Boston School Compact, will take care of any bugs in the new system. Sorry, but I don’t buy it. The Boston School Compact is an unaccountable talk shop for representatives of the BPS, Boston charter schools and parochial schools. The idea was developed and is heavily funded by the Gates Foundation allegedly to promote collaboration and information exchange among different types of schools operating in Boston. Our city is one of several “Compact cities” around the country.

The Boston Compact is a private space that shares very little information with the public about what it is doing (hence, the lack of accountability). It has facilitated some interesting collaborations, but has never taken on anything even remotely as complex as Unified Enrollment. Please do not tell me that the Compact will fix whatever problems arise in this new system.

So, for me, Unified Enrollment” is deceptive advertising. But please don’t take my word for it. Attend one of the community meetings that the City (to its credit) is holding about Unified Enrollment. This could all be in the bag very quickly.

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A big win for Eastie?

Do your homeworkRound 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.

Eastie MapIt 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.

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Assigning Inequity

Save our schools On last Monday night (it seems so long ago), the Parent Imperfect dragged himself to Suffolk University after work to witness the vote of the Mayor’s External Advisory Committee on a school assignment policy for Boston. My first mistake was to stop to get a sandwich on the way. I forgot that the the BPS provides its EAC with food at each of these meetings, allowing the public to descend on the leftovers after committee members have their fill. The catered offerings were much better than my foot-long.

This was a spectator sport. The EAC had allowed public comment at most of its meetings, but the 50 or so observers in the room would be muzzled this time. I could understand this…sort of. The meeting could very well have turned into a long night for the Committee, and taking comments from the floor would only extend the meeting. That said, the muzzle later became a problem for me.

The discussion has to start with the recognition that the EAC has done an important service to the community in this process. They insisted that the BPS take on the question of equitable access to education as a concern that is just as important as reducing transport costs or getting more kids going to school close to home. Neither the BPS nor City Hall started this process with that orientation. Many EAC members have devoted an incredible amount of time and effort to this process, and the committee has been open to hearing from and listening to the community at every step in the process, right up until the last one.  Finally, I have to say that I know personally several people on the EAC. Ironically, three children of two EAC members were sitting in the classroom with Dear Vince on the day he began K-1 at the Rafael Hernández School, and all three of those people continue to go to school with him today. This is such a small city.

The meeting first dealt with the two critical issues that, for the EAC, stood outside of the choice of an assignment “model.” First, they voted on whether or not they would preserve a 50% walk zone preference in whatever plan they recommended. The Committee had been very divided on this issue, with some people wanting to strengthen the preference given to families living close to a given school, while others seemed ready to jettison this preference as a barrier to equity of access to the stronger schools in the system. It’s no secret that I favor the latter view.

EACGiven that, as recently as two days before the Monday meeting, there was strong disagreement on this issue, I expected a lively discussion at this point, but, to my amazement, no discussion ensued. The head of the Data Committee of the EAC made a short prepared presentation with no visuals that I could see. She said that, over the weekend, her committee had reviewed the latest data from the BPS and, in short, the walk zone preference made little difference. It made some difference in the “Home-Based B” model, but almost none in the others under consideration. Since it made no difference, she recommended keeping it in whatever plan they recommended.

HAH? I strained at my muzzle. What data is this that we are using? Where is it? And even if it is true that the walk zone preference makes no difference, wouldn’t that be an argument for removing one more complication in the system, rather than keeping it there? An earlier version of the Parent Imperfect would have blurted this out, but this one kept quiet. Must be the maturity that comes with bad knees…

One member of the EAC questioned the data, asking if this was data that the BPS prepared using the “new processing order” that the EAC very possibly was not going to recommend. The answer came, without hesitation, that “we had the correct data from an earlier BPS presentation.” The obvious next question was whether or not the current recommendation was based on that “correct data,” or the most recent data, which used the wrong assumptions about how a walk zone preference would be implemented. That question was neither asked, nor answered, and the EAC proceeded quickly to a vote on the walk zone preference.

The Mayor SpeaksThe effect of this presentation of data was extraordinary. A committee that had been extremely divided on this controversial issue suddenly saw a way to vote to keep the walk zone preference–something that Mayor and the BPS really wanted–without feeling as though they were limiting access to quality education for students in areas without a lot of strong schools. That it was a respected EAC member making the presentation (and not a BPS staffer) made all the difference. The committee quickly made its most important (and damaging, in my view) decision, by an almost unanimous vote, and heaved a great sigh of relief.

This, of course, is how the use of data gets a bad name. I believe that the person making the presentation believed that the data supports what she was saying–that the preservation of the policy of setting aside 50% of the seats in each BPS school for children living close to the school won’t make a meaningful difference  in terms of the access of all children to quality education. Just the opposite point was made, often with great passion, by EAC members and others at EAC meeting after EAC meeting over the past 10 months. If the stronger schools were evenly distributed throughout the city, the walk zone preference would not make a big difference. But since the stronger schools are heavily concentrated in certain neighborhoods, a walk zone preference, logically, will make a difference. Peng Shi of MIT, the architect of the model eventually recommended by the committee, made precisely this point in a paper summarizing his own prop0sals.

After this walk zone preference decision, everything else was somewhat anti-climactic. The EAC quickly voted to keep the current “processing order” or rules on how the walk zone preference is implemented when it comes to actually assigning children. This was a good decision, from the point of view of access to quality education. The BPS proposed a change in the processing order that would have increased the impact of the walk zone preference, even if the 50% preference stayed the same. But this change also confirmed the fact that the data used to justify the walk zone decision was not the appropriate data to be using (it was based on the proposed new order).

Then the EAC very quickly made a rapid and almost unanimous decision in favor of the “Home-Based A” model, and it was smiles and high-fives all around. All groups love the rush of coming to a difficult decision, and this had certainly been a difficult one for the EAC. People felt good that they had reached a decision that would provide “quality education, close to home.” I so wanted to join in the celebration, but simply could not.

This model will provide every family with a basket of choices based on the family’s home address. The first and strongest factor in filling this “basket” is ensuring that the family has options that are close to home. After ensuring these close-to-home options, the model takes into account the walk zone, the quality of nearby schools and the likely availability of seats in adding additional choices to the basket. Everyone will have at least 6 choices, and some families will have as many as 12 or 13 options in their basket.

March as oneFor me, this was always an interesting option, but not if the walk zone preference was preserved. The parent group, QUEST (of which I am part, though the views in this blog are mine, not QUEST’s) has taken essentially the same view. In short, the model already takes geographic proximity into account in constructing each family’s basket, so by then introducing a walk zone preference on  top of the “close to home” criterion used in giving people choices, we create a kind of double or triple jeopardy for people who don’t happen to live near stronger schools.  We have no way of knowing how this will work when 35,000+ families make their choices, but I’ll go out on a limb here and say that we’ll have significantly more kids going to school within their walk zone. For some people that will be great, for others, not so great.

In the break taken by the EAC after the decision on “Home-Based A” was taken, a public radio reporter asked me what was next for those disappointed with this decision. “What hope is there that a School Committee appointed by the Mayor will change this recommendation?” I could only say that “hope springs eternal.” There are precious few examples of the School Committee taking a position contrary to City Hall on an issue that really matters (and this one does), but all we can do is keep insisting that the right of all children to equitable access has to trump my or anyone else’s preference to get our children into the good school that happens to be close to our home. To do otherwise is to assign inequity to another generation of schoolchildren and the make our city less than it could or ought to be. Stranger things have happened…

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The Walk-Zone PREFERENCE

Assignment Meeting 2The Parent Imperfect and family escaped Boston for a few days of “spring training” during the school vacation week, but did get back in time to see Larry Harmon’s op-ed in Saturday’s Globe about the disappointing results of the school assignment debate in Boston. It seems clear that Larry’s views have been driving the Globe’s editorial position on school assignment, so it’s great that he has come out into the open with a column seeking to explain a really major change in the Globe’s positioning on this issue.

Harmon sees the likely outcome of the community discussion as a “lost opportunity.” For Harmon, the opportunity lay in Mayor Menino’s bold call for a “radically different” assignment policy that would have “more children going to school closer to home.” The piece suggests that, except for three true believers, the External Advisory Committee (EAC) selected by the Mayor has been misguided in its insistence on bringing equity into the conversation. These EAC members, are “well-intentioned,” but they fail to understand that school quality is not static.

For me, the members of the EAC who have consistently upheld the idea of equal access to the quality in the system are among the heroes in this less-than-heroic process. With lots of help from their friends in the community, they have changed the discussion around school assignment in ways that may (one must wait to see what actually happens) limit the damage caused by today’s changes and make an even bigger difference in the future.

Getting InGiven today’s walk-zone preference (with no changes to the preference percentage or the way the BPS implements that preference), the better-quality schools are right now made up of something like 57% students from the immediate neighborhood. Can Harmon and the Globe really be saying that the city would be better served if the demographics of its schools looked even more like the demographics of its neighborhoods?

There is an argument here that if we force more families to choose neighborhood schools (regardless of quality), then “school communities” will emerges around those schools, thus making it easier to improve both the communities and the schools. If that’s what you think, Larry, why not present the data that back up that idea? I expect that there is never any data in support of this idea because the data simply don’t exist. When neighborhoods are segregated racially and divided economically (and, Larry, Boston’s still are), neighborhood schools simply have not been the magic bullet leading to school quality. I have really been searching for the data that will prove me wrong on this, but it just ain’t out there.

If you read the PI’s ramblings, you know that dear Connie now attends a school (The Washington Irving Middle School) within walking distance of our home. This is likely to be the only year of her 13 in the BPS (if all goes well) that she will be able to walk to school (her brother will likely be in the system for 14 years without ever walking to school). While Connie has been conducting civil disobedience against walking to school in the winter, in the fall this was very nice. I can certainly see why people love the idea of going to that school that is just a couple of blocks away, especially if it is a good school. According to the BPS, over three-fourths of families who choose preferred schools at registration choose at least one school close to their home in their top three choices.

All other things being equal (which they never are), I would prefer that Connie not board a bus each morning. I’m glad that the Mayor is taking my preference into account as he make policy choices about the schools. Thanks, Mayor! However, every family in Boston has an equal right to access to quality education through the Boston Public Schools. This happens to be the law, but it is more important to me as a moral principle. That means, on the one hand, that the City needs to do all it can to provide quality education in all of its schools. It also means that the City must not, through its policies, give some children unreasonable preferential access to the quality that exists in the system, while denying other children that access.

This does not mean that every child must have equal access to every school in the system, but it does mean that the Mayor and the School Committee ought to be thinking very seriously about equity of access to quality education when they make assignment policy for the BPS. In doing so, they can and should take into account resource issues such as the cost of transport and my preference (along with that of many others) to send dear Connie to a school near our home. But when my preferences conflict with the rights of families (including my own) to equal access to quality education, there should be no question what should drive policy choices made by public officials. Why would the Globe suggest otherwise?

Queen of ShebaAt a recent EAC meeting, one member argued to maintain or strengthen the walk-zone preference, saying, “we should keep the walk-zone preference to not upset those many parents who think sending their kids to the neighborhood school is their right.” My friend, I may well think that I am the Queen of Sheba, but that does not make it so. And what about those many parents who think they have as much right as anyone else in Boston to get their children into a quality school? Are we concerned about upsetting them? The current assignment policy is not working for the city’s children or their families, and must be changed. Unfortunately, the change desired by the Mayor and supported by the Globe would make the situation worse, rather than better. Let’s hope that the EAC can come up with something better.

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The Stage is Set…

BPS BudgetThe Parent Imperfect hit another of those dry spots over the holidays and is just now recovering. It’s not as if there is nothing to be imperfect about. The debate about school assignment in the Boston Public Schools is coming to a belated climax…belated because a variety of community voices have insisted on a deeper and more thoughtful discussion of the issue.

Mayor Menino has emerged from a period of serious health problems, which is great news. To his credit, he has plunged right back into the conversation about the schools: I only wish his time away from the everyday demands of the city had allowed him to alter his point of view, even slightly. This is one place where enlightened leadership could really improve a policy outcome.

The discussion between the BPS and the External Advisory Committee named by the Mayor has now settled on three options. One would carve up the three current assignment zones in to ten smaller zones. It would offer parents a few more citywide school options, but would greatly limit the choices available to all families. If you live near good schools, you’ll probably have a better chance of getting your children into one of those schools. If you don’t, you won’t.

Dozing TommyThe other two options are variants of a plan offered by Peng Shi and his associates at MIT. This plan would offer each family a “basket” of choices that included some schools very close to their home.and other choices further away. The choice basket would include schools of varying “quality” (according to the test-based way the State defines school quality), so that every family would have some higher quality and some lower quality choices in their basket.

The ten-zone plan is a non-starter from the perspective of providing fair access to the quality schools that exist in the system. If you color-code the city’s schools in terms of quality and take even a quick look at the map, you can see that the ten-zone plan stacks the deck in favor of certain zones. Guess which ones?

If you live two blocks from the Lyndon, you are looking at a dramatically different set of options than if you live two blocks from the Mattahunt. Even with a few additional citywide options, the ten-zone plan will increase inequalities in access to quality public education in Boston. If the ten-zone plan goes forward, geography will be destiny for even more Boston schoolchildren than it is today.

As many have said, the MIT plans (called “home-based” plans, an unfortunate choice of words that confuses more than it clarifies) seem more promising, but, as always, more than a few devils lurk among the details.

School ChoiceAs currently being discussed, the MIT plans continue to apply the one-mile walk zone in a couple of ways. If the plans are implemented this way, the families who live closer to very good schools will have more good schools in their choice basket and PRESTO, those families will find it easier to place their children in those good schools. Sound familiar? In a detailed report on the MIT proposals, Peng is very clear about this effect of applying the walk zone to his plan. That detail somehow didn’t make it into the BPS’s summary of the Peng report for the EAC. I’m sure that was just an oversight.

As Peng also says, the walk-zone preference is not necessary to his plan because the choice basket, by design, already includes a number of “close to home” schools. Add the walk zone to a choice basket already weighted toward “close to home” and you’ve got a form of “double jeopardy.” Maybe it would be better to call it the “double whammy” for children living in poorly-schooled neighborhoods.

Neither of the MIT plans is even close to perfect, but if they are implemented in a transparent way (a huge “if”) without the walk-zone preference, either of them should result in fairer (not completely fair…there will still be much work to do improving the quality if struggling schools) access to quality across all Boston neighborhoods.

Not surprisingly, one senses that the fix is in. Rather than present the ten-zone plan as one concept and the MIT “diverse choice basket” concept as the alternative, the BPS presented the EAC with two versions of the Peng plan, alongside the ten-zone plan. What would happen if, in the race to replace John Kerry in the Senate, there were two Democrats and one Republican on the ballot?

Assignment meetingThe EAC should be choosing between a ten-zone plan that works much like the current system (just with more zones), on the one hand, and the innovative MIT concept of offering each family a fixed basket of choices of varying quality and distance from home, on the other.  Alternatively, let’s put the six-zone plan with “access to quality interventions” back on the table. That option disappeared the last time the cards were shuffled. It is no prize, but it clearly more equitable than the ten-zone plan that popped up at the last minute.

On Monday and Tuesday of this coming week, public meetings will be held to give you a chance to raise your voice on this issue (Monday from 6-8 at Orchard Gardens and Tuesday from 6-7 at Suffolk University). If you care about this issue, take the time to come out and be heard. Some other time could well be too late.

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What’s a mother (or father) to do?

The ISEE has come and gone. Connie was so nervous that Saturday that her passport (her only picture ID) tumbled to the ground as she stepped out of the car. You’d have to know her to know how unlike her this is. The Parent Imperfect didn’t see it, either, as he was trying to scope out a place to park the car amidst the general chaos. The day could have taken a very bad turn in that instant, but one of her friends from the Irving happened to be coming down the street behind her. He saw the passport fall, picked it up and ran to catch up with her. How’s that for a good omen?

She finished the test wondering how she could have been so nervous. She’s most happy that she doesn’t have to wait another two weeks for the make-up day. There’s a lesson in that for her father, too.

Rumor has it that a letter from the Superintendent arrived in the homes of many BPS families yesterday, talking about the current school choice and assignment process. I’ve not seen the letter yet, but I hope it clarifies the effect that the current debate is likely to have on the upcoming assignment lottery. I expect that many families of entering K-1 and K-2 families are wondering just what sorting hat will be used this year.

What’s a mother (or father) to do? I don’t have any inside knowledge of what is going to happen, but I bet that the coming process will look very much like the one that happened last year. I remember very clearly that, during the first meeting on assignment that I attended last spring, the BPS was clear that very few of the changes being talked about would be implemented for the 2013-14 school year. They said that a decision made in January would be too late to implement for a lottery that would begin just a few weeks later.

That makes perfect sense, but my immediate question was, “If any changes we decide in January can’t be implemented for that school year, then why are we in such a hurry to make a decision in January? If planning for the next lottery takes place in the summer, then why couldn’t a decision on changes be made late in the spring? What’s the hurry?

I guess that was a rhetorical answer, The answer is obvious…the January timeline is not a technical deadline based on the assignment planning timeline; It’s a political deadline driven by other considerations. I didn’t get that answer that evening at the Irving School. I didn’t get any answer to my question, in fact, and I’ve not heard this important factoid about timing mentioned again, at any meeting.

Again, I only know what I’ve heard, but I’d be very surprised if any major changes were implemented before the 2014-15 school year lottery, which will begin in January 2014. I’m telling anyone crazy enough to ask me what they should do to look at schools in their current assignment zone (the three-zone scheme), and to pay particular attention to schools that are in their walk zone. I’d make a list of preferences for my assignment zone (the West Zone, in my case), and a back-up list that ranked my walk zone schools, in order of preference.

If I was feeling lucky, I’d also look at the Hernandez School, Boston’s only city-wide elementary school choice. There is no penalty in the lottery for choosing a high-demand school first. You’ll get the highest of your preferences that is available when your number comes up in the lottery. I wouldn’t worry that I’d be wasting my time looking at West Zone schools outside of my walk zone. I’m quite confident that those options will be available this year, and that some sort of grandparenting arrangement will be in place to allow my kids to continue at those schools, even if things change for next year, which they very likely will.

The meetings about the assignment process surfaced many suggestions from parents to make the BPS assignment process more transparent and efficient. Parents have also given the BPS a primer on how they should be communicating to families trying to secure a spot in the system. Many of these suggestions have been dutifully written down on butcher block paper, which was rolled up at the end of the meetings and taken somewhere. Listening for support for neighborhood schools, the BPS hasn’t been interested in these “details.” I can imagine a huge pile of rolled-up paper sitting in some closet on Court Street. This pile would be a gold mine for a listening and learning organization.

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