School & District Management

Assignment Debate Stirs Emotions in Boston

By John Gehring — June 16, 2004 8 min read
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For a guy who gets yelled at a lot these days, Ted Landsmark seems undaunted.

The president of the Boston Architectural Center canceled trips to China and Bermuda when the mayor called on him to lead a task force that will provide Boston’s school committee with alternatives to the city’s student-assignment policy.

The job is a bit like tiptoeing through a minefield in a city where the bitter memories of court-ordered busing still linger, and where a new generation of parents vents frustration over the quality of schools.

So tonight, Mr. Landsmark is in another elementary school cafeteria, wearing another rumpled suit, listening to another angry parent. It’s the last of 16 community forums that have been held across Boston over the past two months.

“This is a futile exercise,” the parent says, his face flushed red. “You’re pitting people against each other. People want the same thing. They want to go to a good school in their own neighborhood. To waste time and energy on something like this assignment policy is window dressing. It has no real bearing on the quality of schools.”

Mr. Landsmark, 58, is no stranger to struggle. In 1976, when a white anti-busing protester attacked him outside Boston’s City Hall using an American flag mounted on a long pole, the assault was captured by a photographer. The Pulitzer Prize-winning image became a national symbol of this city’s racially charged experience with busing.

Then a 29-year-old lawyer and director of a minority contractors’ association, the Yale graduate was on his way to a meeting when he ran into a rally of students protesting busing. After the attack, Mr. Landsmark walked away with a broken nose and a renewed interest in activism.

“The immediate effect was to mobilize a great many Bostonians who had up until that time stood on the sideline,” he recalled. “I became quite inadvertently a spokesperson for reconciliation.”

‘Pragmatic Concerns’

While specters of the past loom over much of the contemporary debate over race, class, and access to good schools, Mr. Landsmark says it’s a new day here.

“The vast majority of parents who are affected by the transportation options hadn’t even been born when busing was introduced in Boston 30 years ago, so they have no direct connection to the trauma the city went through,” he said recently. “For most of them, talking about busing is like talking about World War II or the Civil War. ... Parents are asking whether there is a more efficient way to do this. They have pragmatic concerns.”

So do Boston public school leaders. The 60,000-student district spent $55 million out of its $646 million budget this school year on busing, even as a vocal contingent of parents called for more access to schools closer to home.

The community task force of parents, academics, advocates, and representatives from the religious community, appointed by Mayor Thomas M. Menino, will offer alternatives for a new assignment policy to the Boston school committee by September. The task force is considering eight possible options. If a new policy is adopted, the changes will not be implemented until the 2005-06 school year at the earliest.

Boston’s “controlled choice” plan for elementary and middle schools, in place since 1988, divides the city into three zones. It sets aside up to half of the seats in a school for students who live close enough to walk. The rest of the seats are filled by children of families living outside the neighborhood. While the district reports that about 85 percent of families get their first or second choices in the lottery, that’s no consolation to parents who lose out on a spot they wanted in the school right down the street.

In 1999, under the threat of a federal lawsuit brought by families of four white children and an advocacy group that favors neighborhood schools, the school committee voted to end the use of race in student assignments.

Some observers fear that overhauling the current plan could lead to more racial isolation in schools and reopen old wounds without making schools any better.

“A great deal of energy has gone into this process, and it’s not clear yet if any changes will really benefit the vast majority of children in the schools,” said John Mudd, the senior project director for Massachusetts Advocates for Children, a group that works on school improvement and youth programs. “The case has yet to be made.”

Demographic Change

The Boston school district today hardly resembles the system of 1974, when the late U.S. District Court Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. issued his famous busing order. Slightly more than half of the students then were white. Now, almost 80 percent of district students are black or Latino, a result of changing immigration patterns and an exodus of white families.

The district’s Web site reflects the diversity: It provides information translated for Cape Verdeans, Haitians, Vietnamese, Portuguese, and Somalians, among others. Boston itself is now a “majority minority” city, with nonwhites representing slightly more than 50 percent of the population.

In the South End, the William Blackstone School sits in a multiethnic neighborhood near Fenway Park, the home of the Red Sox. Most of the students at the pre-K-5 school come from homes where Spanish is the first language. Blackstone has a strong English-language program and a full-time nurse, which makes it much sought after in its zone, where parents can choose from 27 schools.

Two- thirds of the children at the 700-student school ride the bus. On a gray and cold May morning, Principal Mildred Ruiz-Allen stood outside welcoming her students as they stepped off one of 30 buses that pull up each morning.

“As a school, transportation is our greatest challenge,” she said. Parents particularly worry about overcrowding on buses—students often sit three to a seat. Late buses are a frequent concern. Staff members spend about 40 minutes out of the day taking care of busing issues, but Ms. Ruiz-Allen says that’s not a significant drain on time.

At schools served by more than two dozen buses, some administrators can spend several hours a day, though, dealing with transportation issues, said Ellen Guiney, the executive director of the Boston Plan for Excellence, a local education foundation that collaborates with the district.

“We work closely with principals, and I talk to a lot of them who say the one thing we have to address is the fallout from long bus rides, and the time it takes to deal with things like discipline issues that happen on the buses,” she said.

Ms. Guiney believes that if the Boston school committee votes to adopt a new assignment model—one option is keeping the same plan—members must think about crafting a more efficient system.

“Boston gives more choice than virtually any other district in the country, and it does so at enormous cost,” she said. “We have to think more broadly about costs, and what we would do with the money if we narrow choice.”

Making the challenge even greater, she added, is the long shadow that the legacy of busing casts on any decision. “The history is in the air,” Ms. Guiney said. “It’s difficult to go through this with a blank slate.”

Parents’ Memories

Kim Janey lived that history as an 11-year-old. When busing started in Boston, she was sent from her predominantly black school in the South End to a middle school in Charlestown, a white, working-class enclave. She remembers the police escorts, the rocks and racial slurs thrown at her, the angry mobs.

“The community was very angry that children from outside their neighborhood were being bused in,” she recalled, “but we didn’t want to be there either.”

While Ms. Janey doesn’t have any children in the public schools, she has attended many of the community forums seeking feedback on the assignment policy and has helped organize parents.

“People are very entrenched in their positions,” she said. “There are some communities, particularly communities of color, who believe there are a small group of parents who have the ear of elected officials and they are pushing for neighborhood schools.”

The perception that champions of neighborhood schools are mainly white residents seeking a return to the days when they had their own turf with good schools and didn’t have to worry about the education of blacks or Latinos makes Ann Walsh see red.

A longtime neighborhood-schools advocate and the director of Boston’s Children First—the group that sued the Boston public schools to drop race as a factor in student assignments—Ms. Walsh sees a small group of activist minority parents drowning out the majority of black parents, who she believes also want neighborhood schools.

“Why are they insisting that minority neighborhoods can’t support good schools?” she said. “That is a racist concept. Neighborhood schools are a reform. You reconnect the schools to the community, and you bring back parents as watchdogs. This is a marvelous opportunity.”

But Charles V. Willie, a professor emeritus at Harvard University’s graduate school of education who helped design the controlled-choice assignment model, worries that any plan limiting choice will have a disparate impact on low-income minority communities.

“The neighborhood schools are still relatively segregated racially, ethnically, and economically,” said Mr. Willie, who has been a court- appointed master overseeing desegregation efforts in Boston and other cities. “There is no evidence that neighborhood schools won’t be segregated schools.”

Dennis Sullivan, 38, and his wife reject that argument. The young, working-class white couple from the city’s West Roxbury neighborhood have a 2-year-old they hope will attend a popular grammar school down the street from their home in a few years.

But they fear that won’t happen. Because West Roxbury has some of the most coveted schools in its assignment zone, they say, many neighborhood parents end up squeezed out.

Mr. Sullivan remembers when busing started in Boston and he was one of a handful of students from his neighborhood not ordered to attend another school outside his community. Most of the students in his class were from other areas of the city. “It fractured our sense of community,” he said.

He wants a better experience for his children. “We hate to be one of those families to take flight from the city,” he said, “but when it comes to your children, you want the best for them.”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 16, 2004 edition of Education Week as Assignment Debate Stirs Emotions in Boston


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