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After a year of study, a special advisory committee on the emotionally charged issue of school assignments in Boston is recommending a new assignment system.
The panel appointed by Mayor Thomas Menino on Monday night chose a complicated plan based on how close schools are to student homes and on the quality of those schools.
Under the so-called Home-Based/A model, which will be presented to the Boston School Committee Wednesday, families would be given their choice of at least six schools based on a long list of criteria, including distance, vacancies and school performance on MCAS. That's fewer school choices than parents have now.
WBUR's Delores Handy joined Morning Edition Tuesday to talk about the chosen plan.
Bob Oakes: Under the new plan, would most students find themselves at schools relatively close to their homes?
Delores Handy: They should be closer. How close depends on where you live.
Some students will find schools down the block, but remember the School Department has closed a lot of schools. The challenge is making sure top-performing schools are included in the choices students have. Depending on where you live, the top-performing school could still be quite a distance away.
Roslindale parent Kevin Murray, with the group Quality Education For Every Student (QUEST), said some parts of the city — such as the Moss Hill area of Jamaica Plain, a high-income area — have lots of top-performing schools to choose from, but other parts of the city aren't so fortunate:
In the walk zone at the corner of Humboldt and Seaver, they have eight schools. Seven of them are in Tier 4, the most struggling schools in the city. And this is what happens when you make close to home, you make geography destiny, that's the kind of options people have. Then we're going to wonder why it is that students fail.
What about calls for giving priority in school assignments to any student who lives within a mile of any school, as happens now?
That walk zone policy would continue as it is for now, at least it's what the panel is recommending. Critics say that gives privilege to those who live in neighborhoods with good schools and takes away opportunity for others.
After all the debate in the past year, did this 27-person panel have much trouble making a choice?
It appeared relatively easy Monday night. The vote came rather early in the meeting. But remember that was after lots of meetings over the past year, often as many as two meetings a week. There were meetings last week, the most recent one on Saturday, and some committee members say they left that meeting last weekend thinking they'd endorse a different plan, but after giving it more thought chose this one.
So what led to the selection of this plan?
The primary concern was simply getting rid of the current system, where there are just three districts and students can travel long ways within those districts. Menino had charged them with coming up with a plan for neighborhood schools.
Of the plans to keep students closer to home, this seemed to be the one the committee decided had the best chance of reaching that goal, and the one that provided parents some predictability.
But the big issue remains school quality. How is the panel addressing that?
That's really the concern of a lot parents, educators and activists. You heard a lot of talk about all students, regardless of where they live, having access to quality schools during the meetings over the past year, and that's what's leading to criticism of the move.
Here's Barbara Fields, with the Black Educators Alliance of Massachusetts:
I'm very disappointed that our children continue to be in facilities, and we are locking them more now into schools that are under-performing and not giving them the access to quality across this district, but more importantly that we're not addressing the issue of them having quality wherever they are, and this plan does not address that at all.
Some members of the assignment panel say quality is not what they were assigned to look at; they were charged with coming up with a plan to get students in schools closer to home.
Here's panel co-chair Helen Dajer:
This is just the first step really in the puzzle of our children's education. And getting them to have equitable access to good quality is the first step. The next step, all the next steps are up to the School Department.
Over the past year, the panel did talk a lot about and heard a lot about the need for improving quality in schools across the district. It is urging more money for school quality.
Is this a done deal? Or are changes possible when the school committee takes it up?
The school committee can do whatever it wants with recommendations. It's expected to hold hearings before a vote. But of course this is a school committee appointed by Menino acting on a plan from another panel appointed by Menino. No one's expecting any major changes.
This program aired on February 26, 2013.
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