Even in 2013, the shadow of court-ordered busing still looms large over Boston Public Schools (BPS). However, since 1974 much has changed in BPS, most notably that our public schools are, for the first time in a long time, deluged with wait-lists of eager parents who want to enroll their children. But not all schools are created equal or have wait-lists, and herein lies the real challenge and the reason why the school assignment process has been so difficult.
Enter The External Advisory Committee (EAC), a twenty-seven person committee appointed by the Mayor and Superintendent to come up with a better assignment plan. In order to do this, they have painstakingly analyzed data (including bringing in MIT) and collected information from parents across the city in a series of meetings to identify and recommend changes where inequalities exist. The EAC is charged with the monumental task of devising a scheme that not only establishes a new model, but does so in a manner that is equally just for every
neighborhood across the city.
Of course each neighborhood is different. For starters, they all don’t have the same number of quality schools.
The EAC tackled this issue head on by identifying just what “quality” means. They creating measurements and
guidelines to identify the schools that are succeeding and those that are not.
The other very real challenge is that not all neighborhoods even have a school including the Fenway. Elementary
schools are an essential public institution that create a sense of community and help anchor a neighborhood. The
Fenway’s lack of a school is holding back eager young families who may want to live there. In this they are not
alone; Beacon Hill, Back Bay, and West End also have no schools.
Thankfully, parents are taking action in our neighborhoods. In 2003, the city walked away from an opportunity
to purchase a school on Brimmer Street from Emerson College. Since then, a group of parents across several
downtown neighborhoods have been working to site a school in order to keep families downtown. Unlike last
time, this time, City Hall and Court Street are on-board. BPS has even included the commitment in their recent
assignment plan presentation.
So where does this leave the student assignment process? The EAC did a great job in identifying three assignment
models, one “zone-based” and two “home-based.” I believe that one of the two “home-based” models is the
right way to go in providing equitable access city-wide. Every parent in the city, whether they live near a good
school or not, should have the same opportunity of getting their child into a quality school.
For decades, this has not been the practice. For example in 2011 (the last time I ran these numbers), parents in
the Fenway had a 67 percent chance of getting one of their choices while the city-wide average stood at almost
77 percent with some neighborhoods having a 96 percent chance. It was even worse in Beacon Hill with a 41
percent chance. This inequity has to go. Thankfully with the “home-based” system it will, by allowing for the
nearest quality choices closest to home for all residents.
Our work is far from done. Of course, more schools need to be built in order to afford all neighborhoods the
same chance to have a school nearby. But also, the schools that aren’t being chosen have to be improved. The
plan to provide enhanced resources to those schools that are failing is the right idea.
We’ve come a long way since court-ordered busing, and the difficult images and challenges that surrounded that
period. In choosing to focus on quality rather than just assignment, I believe our best days are now ahead.