Friday, September 28, 2012

Into the Fog of Student Assignments

If there’s anything clear about changing student assignments in the Boston Public Schools, it’s that two key political figures—Mayor Thomas Menino and the chair of the City Council committee on Education John Connolly—want to see more children going to school in their own neighborhood. And Boston still has plenty of parents dissatisfied with the current system of school assignments.

But, as parents, advocates, and elected officials at a new round of meetings look at five possible new plans, with more details and overlays, the nature of assignment policy becomes more complex and elusive.

Officials made their first presentation of alternative plans Monday night in Dorchester, at the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School. Despite several pages of maps and information about school performance and popularity, people in the audience, along with members of the advisory council appointed by the mayor, asked for even more information.

Since any new assignment plan is supposed to ensure access to quality schools from any subdivision of Boston, there is concern over measures of performance. Maps provided at the meeting referred to MCAS scores at each school, but BPS Superintendent Carol Johnson noted it would also be important to see a measure of school improvement.

There have been some examples recent dramatic improvements, whether at the Orchard Gardens K-8 School in Roxbury or the Henderson Inclusion School in Dorchester. MCAS scores were also much improved at a new in-district charter school, UP Academy in South Boston, compared with results from the middle school it replaced in the same building.

In his presentation of the five options at the meeting, Deputy Superintendent Michael Goar said schools throughout the city “have improved tremendously” since the last significant change in assignment policy was considered five years ago. But one of the maps handed out showed that, regardless of student performance, schools had different levels of popularity, with many of the least chosen schools in neighborhoods that are home to the most BPS students.

The co-chair of the advisory committee, Hardin Coleman, Dean of the Boston University School of Education, said any of the new options would still pose “some big challenges,” including access to quality schools for students from the poorest families.

One remedy to help improve access would be to change the schools themselves. This has already begun with recent school turnarounds and the expansion of popular and high-performing schools. Officials argue there’s potential for more improvement, thanks to provisions in the new contract with the Boston Teachers Union. And, following outside legal pressure, the BPS has taken steps to strengthen programs for students with learning disabilities and English language learners. Speaking Monday night, Goar said there are also plans to increase another popular choice—dual language schools, even combining English with Vietnamese and Haitian Creole.

 “Quality must be dealt with, no matter what,” he said.

 Another way to improve quality would be to spend money saved on busing on improvements such as extended learning time, a system-wide goal the new teachers contract failed to achieve. But that only raises more questions: how much money each assignment option would save, and whether it could be guaranteed that savings would go back to the schools.

Charter schools also provide options in some of the poorest neighborhoods, and their supply is growing. Despite some strong performance, they still lag behind the BPS when it comes to share of enrollment consisting of students with disabilities and English language learners.

Though they are public schools that accept students by lottery, the charters operate on a different standard. Their enrollment is citywide, and any busing needed for students in the primary grades is protected by state law and—if the school is in Boston—paid for by the city (along with transportation for parochial and private schools). It can also be argued the two kinds of public schools are judged by different standards: if racial diversity and inclusion are a prime goal in discussion about assignments for the BPS, the focus for charter schools in Boston is more on getting strong performance with a high percentage of students of color.

For all the uneven competition they might offer, charters are part of the assignment equation in the minds of parents. And that equation could change with any new expansion of charter school supply, or any accommodation that might potentially develop around transportation or enrollment.

For the BPS schools, Goar argued the points on a fixed map were less important than an annual “execution plan,” that is, adjusting the educational content to fit the needs of a given zone.

Advisory board member John Nucci, a former member of the School Committee and City Council, said any of the options would be better than the three zones in the current plan. But one Boston parent of a two year-old child, Meghan Doran, said, “If I look at all these maps and where I live, I see that my options are limited.”

Even with the best possible boundaries, overlays, and improvements, officials also spoke of the options as a choice among trade-offs. Increasing the number of zones would mean more access to a neighborhood school and more predictability, but also fewer schools to choose from and less racial or socio-economic diversity. And there could also be trade-offs concerning convenience and safety.

A long-time education advocate, John Mudd acknowledged that trade-offs had to be considered in deciding on a plan, but only if enough facts can be made available. “Do people understand and are personally empowered to give feedback?” he asked. “Or are they confused?”

Kim Janey, Senior Program Director for the Boston School Reform Project at Mass. Advocates for Children, also said there was a need to know more. “So, here we are again,” she said. “We have a bunch of maps and we have no idea what access to quality is for parents.”

For information on the schedule of community meetings on the assignment plan: