Boston Weighs Return to Neighborhood Schools

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Nearly a quarter-century after a federal court ordered the Boston schools to integrate by busing students, city school officials last week opened up discussions on whether--and how--to return to a system of neighborhood schools.

Court-ordered busing in the 63,000-student system ended more than a decade ago. But the plan that replaced it--a "controlled choice" system in which students can choose from among 25 to 30 schools as long as racial balance is maintained--has kept many children from attending schools closest to their homes.

Citing convenience and cost-efficiency, Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant laid three options before the city's school board July 1. All three were tentative, and no final plan is likely until this fall.

In a report to the school board introducing the proposals, however, Mr. Payzant stressed the system's commitment to "diversity and a desegregated school system."

"Any discussion of modifications to the student-assignment plan must take place in the context of these overriding interests," he said in the report.

The three proposals are:

  • Maintain the current assignment system but eliminate any consideration of the race of the applicants;
  • Switch to a cluster model, by which schools would be divided into 10 geographic areas, with each area including several schools from which a student could choose; or
  • Adopt a model under which a family's home would represent the center of a circle that would encompass the 10 schools nearest the family's immediate neighborhood.

The proposals Mr. Payzant sketched last week mark a slight departure from a task force's recommendations in November that called for school leaders to improve all the city's schools, especially those that parents consistently avoid. The task force stopped short of recommending an elimination of racial concerns altogether.

"It is simply not possible in Boston in 1997 to implement a return to neighborhood schools," the task force's report concluded. ("Panel Opposes Return to Neighborhood Schools," Dec. 3, 1997.)


News of Mr. Payzant's latest designs drew some predictable reactions from both sides of the city's long-running debate over integration.

Charles V. Willie, a Harvard University education professor and an author of the city's controlled-choice plan, called the move toward neighborhood schools "totally unnecessary."

"Boston children of all races have been going to school happily together since the controlled-choice plan was adopted by the city a decade ago," he said. Given the option, he added, most students select the schools outside their neighborhoods that most closely match their educational goals and interests.

Mr. Willie said Mr. Payzant's proposals could limit school choice and lead to a resegregation of schools and resources. That, he added, could ultimately lead to the return of federal court oversight.

One proponent of neighborhood schools said last week that none of the proposed options goes far enough.

"It seems all these plans would do is make the bus ride shorter," said Ann F. Walsh, the executive director of Boston's Children First, a local advocacy group. Ideally, Ms. Walsh said, she would like to see students assigned to the schools closest to their homes so that those schools could function as community centers, helping both students and working parents.

Whatever plan is adopted will have to accommodate the district's current racial makeup: Although the city is about 60 percent white, about 85 percent of its public school students are members of racial or ethnic minorities.

Mixed Reaction

District administrators insist that whatever changes are adopted will neither return the system to segregation nor bring about the funding disparities that prevailed before the original federal court ruling in 1974.

"We have three goals in mind: maintaining diversity, maintaining school choice, and meeting those goals efficiently," said Tracy Lynch, a district spokeswoman, adding that transportation costs have soared to $42 million out of an annual $547 million school budget.

"But above all," Ms. Lynch added, "we need to find out if families want more options or geographic proximity."

Ellen Guiney, the executive director of the advocacy group Boston Schools for Excellence, praised Mr. Payzant's proposals. They represent "a very good way to get a discussion going about a new plan for student assignment," she said. "Each is quite different, and each is trying to meet several different goals."

Vol. 17, Issue 42, Page 3

Published in Print: July 8, 1998, as Boston Weighs Return to Neighborhood Schools
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