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Allow Parents To Choose Schools, Boston Task Force Recommends

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A task force established to recommend changes in Boston's student-assignment process has issued a report calling on the school system to allow all parents an opportunity to choose which schools their children will attend.

The proposals, if adopted, would be the most significant alteration of the city's desegregation plan since it was imposed by court order in 1975.

The committee on the student-assignment process submitted its report to Superintendent of Schools Laval S. Wilson late last month. It was the 16th and final report submitted by task forces appointed by Mr. Wilson to design a long-term blueprint for improving Boston's schools.

The plan calls for each school in the district to attract and maintain a student enrollment that reflects within 10 percentage points the racial composition of its subdistrict or the district as a whole.

Under the plan, parents would be permitted to rank their preferences from among a number of schools, although their first choice would not be guaranteed.

At the elementary-school level, the citywide district would be divided into four subzones that would roughly approximate the system's current districts. Parents of elementary students would be able to choose from among about 10 schools in their subzone.

Parents of middle-school students would choose from schools covering a wider geographic area, and parents of high-school students could select from among all schools in the system not requiring admissions examinations.

District officials would match students with schools on a first-come, first-served basis, until each school's racial quota was filled. There would be some accommodation for siblings wishing to attend school together, and all currently enrolled students would have the option of remaining in the schools they now attend.

One effect of the plan would be to remove the special status of the district's magnet schools, which are the only alternatives to assigned schools now available.

In addition, the plan would draw kindergarten students into the desegregation process for the first time.

Key Features

The student-assignment committee identified four key features that it called "vital'' to the success of the proposed plan:

  • Establishing parent-information centers to inform parents of their options and "aggressively pursuing'' parents who did not participate in the choice process.
  • Informing parents of their children's school assignments by the end of February each year to avoid overlapping with private-school registrations.
  • Introducing state-of-the-art technology and decentralized decisionmaking so that parents could get quick action on initial assignments, transfers, and other enrollment matters.
  • Developing an effective process for accountability and intervention geared to improving schools that are not successful in attracting a full, desegregated student body.

In many respects, the plan resembles the "controlled choice'' model that has operated in nearby Cambridge since 1981.

It was also recently adopted by another Massachusetts district, Fall River, which is voluntarily attempting to desegregate a Portuguese-speaking minority population. (See Education Week, Feb. 11, 1987.)

Observers say it is impossible to predict the likelihood of the plan's acceptance by city and school officials and others involved in the desegregation lawsuit.

Mr. Wilson will not comment on the plan until he makes his recommendations to the Boston School Committee, probably sometime after the middle of the month, according to a district spokesman.

Any changes to the student-assignment process would also require the approval of U.S. District Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr., who has retained some oversight powers over the district's racial quotas. However, that limitation may be lifted if the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit upholds the school committee's appeal of Judge Garrity's refusal to declare the district unitary.

Other Developments

In other school-desegregation-related developments:

  • St. Louis. U.S. District Judge Stephen Limbaugh last month rejected proposals to establish six new magnet schools next year in the St. Louis district. He said they had not been properly planned.

The proposals were developed in response to an order from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, which required the district to submit proposals for attracting 6,000 more white students into city schools from the surrounding suburbs.

In his order, Judge Limbaugh said that white students from the suburbs should not be given preference in magnet-school admissions over whites who live in the city, as is currently the case.

"People will not move into the city and rebuild neighborhoods and businesses if their children are thwarted from attending a city school,'' he wrote.

Judge Limbaugh ordered the court-appointed magnet-review committee to prepare a plan by Sept. 14 outlining how the district could attract 2,000 new white students from the suburbs each year for a three-year period beginning in 1988.

William Taylor, a lawyer for the black plaintiffs in the case, said last week that he would file a motion asking the judge to reconsider his decision and to allow at least two new magnet schools to open next year.

  • Denver. U.S. District Judge Richard P. Matsch has reduced the court's involvement in the operation of the Denver Public Schools, but said he plans to issue a permanent injunction against the district to ensure it does not resegregate.

"We're in the process of starting to wind down the case,'' said Gordon Greiner, the lawyer for the black plaintiffs who filed suit against the district 17 years ago.

Lawyers for both sides in the case are preparing evidence and suggestions for court oversight during an interim period before it issues its final injunction.

Mr. Greiner said it was likely that the district would no longer have to seek court approval to change elements of the desegregation plan once an interim decree is issued.

Judge Matsch has also asked district officials to present plans for changes in pupil-transfer policies, faculty-integration procedures, and the future development of magnet schools.

It was unclear last week whether the district would drop its appeal of Judge Matsch's refusal to grant unitary status to the district, which is pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit. Michael Jackson, a lawyer for the Denver schools, was unavailable for comment.

  • Arlington County, Va. The Arlington school board last month voted to reduce the number of schools that receive students bused from a predominantly black neighborhood in South Arlington.

About 45 students in grades 4-6 have been bused to schools in North Arlington under the terms of a court-approved desegregation plan adopted in 1971.

Those students currently being bused will have the option of continuing to attend their present schools, but all new 4th graders will be assigned to schools closer to their homes.

Black students in grades 1-3 have been attending South Arlington schools under an earlier amendment to the plan.

Under the new plan, some North Arlington schools will revert to being mostly white, according to school officials.

The board denied black parents' requests to convert a South Arlington magnet school into a neighborhood school, but voted to increase from 20 percent to 25 percent the number of seats reserved for students from the neighborhood.

Some black intermediate- and high-school students will also attend schools closer to their homes under the amended plan.

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