School & District Management

Pupil Assignments Get Another Look in Boston

By Lesli A. Maxwell — February 05, 2013 6 min read
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In Boston, a city where the struggle to desegregate public education through large-scale busing has left deep scars, school leaders are, once again, grappling with new ways of assigning students to schools that are closer to home.

At the same time, Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who controls Boston’s 57,000-student school system, is pushing a slate of state legislative changes he says are necessary to ensure that every neighborhood in the city can offer enough viable schooling options for families under a new student-assignment plan.

Among those changes: expanding the intervention authority currently reserved for the state’s lowest-performing schools to include other struggling schools and lifting a cap on the number of charter schools that report directly to district leaders. If approved by state lawmakers, the mayor’s legislation would affect districts and charter schools across Massachusetts.

Twenty years after court-ordered desegregation ended in Boston, the city’s current initiative to change the student-assignment process in a district that is nearly 90 percent minority is raising cautious hopes among supporters that the district can finally craft a plan that will end the busing of nearly 65 percent of kindergartners through 8th graders to schools outside their neighborhoods.

The Boston effort—unfolding since Mr. Menino’s call for an overhaul more than a year ago—also underscores how the tough questions some urban districts faced for decades in trying to achieve racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic balance in schools have shifted to equally vexing ones around how to provide high-performing schools in every neighborhood.

“We’ve always said, ‘Forget about drawing lines until you deal with the quality issue,' " said Myriam Ortiz, the executive director of the Boston Parent Organizing Network, a nonprofit group that organizes city parents to advocate for change in the public schools. “I think we may finally be at that point.”

Zones vs. Distance

Under Boston’s current assignment process—nearly a decade old—the city is divided into three sprawling geographic zones that offer as many as 20 choices each for K-8 schooling to families that live within those zones, said Matthew Wilder, a district spokesman. The district uses a race-blind algorithm to assign students within their zones but keeps socioeconomic factors in the mix. Nearly three-quarters of students qualify for federally subsidized meals.

Students can attend high school anywhere in the city and that would not change under three new assignment scenarios being considered by an advisory panel overseeing the process.

“We think there’s a way to make the assignment process less complex and more predictable for parents,” Mr. Wilder said of the current assignment system.

One model would set up 10 assignment zones that would offer most families between three to 14 choices of elementary and K-8 schools.

There would be no zones at all under the other two scenarios. Parents would apply to schools that fell within a prescribed distance from their homes. One plan would offer at least six choices, and the other, at least nine.

None of the plans would markedly change the racial and ethnic composition of schools, and families who wanted their children to stay in their current school assignments would be allowed to do so.

There are also two “overlay” assignment plan proposals for English-language learners and special education students to address what have been shortages of programs for such students in schools across the city.

City and school leaders working to revamp pupil assignment said that, after analyzing the data, they were surprised at the extent to which students were being bused to low-performing schools across town under the current system.

Expanding Turnarounds

To provide more equitable access to good schools, Mayor Menino and Boston schools Superintendent Carol Johnson are pushing a legislative package they say would accelerate their efforts to improve schooling all over the city.

Under a state law passed in 2010, Ms. Johnson and other local superintendents in the state have used special turnaround authority—such as extending the school day and replacing underperforming teachers—to intervene in some of the worst-achieving schools.

At the heart of the mayor’s plan is a proposal to extend that turnaround authority to schools that have not yet been declared underperforming by the state, but are teetering on the edge—a change that would affect dozens of schools in Boston, Mr. Wilder said.

But the head of the Boston Teachers’ Union, which just last September wrapped up more than two years of contentious negotiations with the district on a new contract, said such an extension would be an end-run around the collective-bargaining agreement.

“We negotiated a contract that the mayor was happy with, that the district was happy with, and that we were happy with,” said Richard Stutman, the president of the teachers’ union. “No sooner did we sign the agreement than the mayor is going to the legislature now to get around it.”

Mr. Stutman said the proposal would impose “turnaround powers without any of the resources to pay teachers for their extra time.”

Much of the mayor’s proposed legislation also focuses on changes to state charter school law. Mainly, the plan would end a cap on the number of charters that districts can run. Those “in district” charters have unionized teachers but operate under fewer contract rules. Boston has five such charters, Mr. Wilder said.

No Caps, More Rules

But the proposal also seeks to impose new prescriptions on charter schools, such as requiring them to reserve seats for English-language learners and special education students. It would also give district leaders more say in the grade configurations and locations of new charters in their jurisdictions and would incorporate a weighted-student-funding formula for charter school funding.

Kevin Andrews, the headmaster of the Neighborhood House Charter School in the Dorchester section of Boston and the chairman of the Boston Alliance of Charter Schools, said charter operators are concerned about a number of the mayor’s proposals.

Mr. Andrews is also the co-chairman of a special compact between the city’s charter school leaders and the district, which aims to bring more collaboration between the two sectors on matters such as facilities and transportation.

He said charters in the city are already working to expand their capacity to serve English-language learners and special education students, though he questions assertions that charters, overall, are that far behind the city’s regular schools in serving students with special needs.

His school is in the midst of an outreach effort in Dorchester’s growing immigrant communities, which include families from Cape Verde and Haiti.

“We as a charter community know that we have to do better to serve the growing number of ELLs in our communities,” Mr. Andrews said. “But this is something that should be voluntary and not legislated.”

Despite some major disagreements with the mayor’s legislation, Mr. Andrews said he welcomes Mr. Menino’s willingness to make education reform a high-profile priority.

“When the mayor puts something out, it means people are going to pay attention to it,” Mr. Andrews said. “This will give us more legs to do the work that we want to do.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 06, 2013 edition of Education Week as Boston Reconsidering Student Assignments

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