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August 14, 2011

Parents’ anxiety grows as summer fades

Still struggling to choose among imperfect options

Betty Legendre is struggling with the school assignment of her son Jeffrey (right), 5.

Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff

Betty Legendre is struggling with the school assignment of her son Jeffrey (right), 5.

Marshall Elementary was not Betty Legendre’s first choice for her 5-year-old son. It was not even her second or third. Still, she was relieved when she heard he had a seat at the Dorchester school. After all, a year earlier, he had been assigned no school at all.

But it did not take long for her relief to turn to worry.

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Legendre, an unemployed 43-year-old who moved to Mattapan from Atlanta last summer, knows few people in Boston and little about the schools. So she was stunned when other mothers at her son Jeffrey’s Head Start program told her about a fatal midday shooting near the Marshall school two years ago and advised her not to send her son there.

The school she had uncritically accepted for her son was considered unacceptable by other Boston parents. And as far as she knew, he was stuck with it.

“I don’t want him to go there,” Legendre told a reporter, her voice pained, after her conversation with the other parents. Hers is one of 13 families the Globe is following through the school lottery process this year.

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For many Boston families, the arduous task of finding a school for their child is finished in March. Some are assigned to schools they wanted or can live with; some are not, and they default to long-established backup plans - leaving the city or choosing private schools. But for others, the anxious quest continues late into the summer. Instead of preparing for the first day of school, they are still battling disappointment or weighing options in August, uncertain or unsettled about where their child will go.

For most of them, finances are tight and options limited. A few are considering teaching their children at home. Some have pinned their hopes on waiting lists at their favorite schools. Others are trying to come to terms with the hand they have been dealt, to accept an undesired outcome and make the best of it.

Boston uses a complex lottery system to determine where students will attend school. Instead of simply going to the school next door - which may have a poor reputation or below-average test scores - families are allowed to name their top choices but are not guaranteed a seat. Four-year-olds who apply for prekindergarten classes may not receive an assignment at all, while older children entering the system may be assigned to a different school altogether.

And when families learn, to their dismay, that they have not been assigned to their chosen schools, some alternatives are already closed to them.

The lottery that assigns students to Boston charter schools was held March 9 this year. So by the time families received their public school assignments - mailed out March 18 - the city’s charter schools were already full.

“Parents want options if they didn’t get into their top BPS schools,” said Dom Slowey, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, which took more calls than usual from parents this year. “They’re looking at charter schools, but at that point, it’s probably too late.”

At the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity, known as Metco, a voluntary program that sends city youngsters to schools in the suburbs, the news for desperate parents is even grimmer: There, the waiting list runs to 8,000 names, and the typical wait is four or five years.

“If parents are walking in the door today to get on the waitlist, hopefully their child is 1 or 2 years old,” associate director John Shandorf said. “We tell parents, `You need to be finding your best option in Boston.”’

With the lottery based on the luck of the draw, someone has to lose out. Ingrid Martin knew that. But by listing a dozen schools on her son’s prekindergarten application, she thought she could avoid being shut out.

But Martin drew the short straw anyhow. Not only did her son not get a school assignment, his waiting list numbers were abysmal: number 61 of 61 at the Hernandez K-8 School; 42 of 42 at his family’s first choice, the Curley K-8 School, around the corner from their home in Jamaica Plain.

“I thought if I put enough schools, I should end up with a placement,” she said. “I didn’t appreciate how badly things could go.”

After trying again in the second round of the lottery, Martin scored a better wait-list position, in the top 10, at Mendell Elementary. But she is pessimistic about her chances because the integrated classroom there has only a handful of seats for students without disabilities.

She plans to send her son back to his day-care program in September and says she does not know what she will do if she gets a call from Boston Public Schools after the first few days of school, when seats often become available. She worries about sending her son to join a classroom midstream, when the other children have settled in already. But turning down a wait-list opening for prekindergarten would mean taking her chances in the lottery next year.

Both prospects make her anxious. “I’m trying not to worry about it right now,” she said.

After their daughter, Maia (left), 5, did not get into their first-choice school, Lucia Colombaro and Jeremy Stark are deciding whether to send her to Mather Elementary School or to home-school her. Though home-schooling would be difficult, they wonder if public schools will suppress Maia’s curiosity.

Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff

After their daughter, Maia (left), 5, did not get into their first-choice school, Lucia Colombaro and Jeremy Stark are deciding whether to send her to Mather Elementary School or to home-school her. Though home-schooling would be difficult, they wonder if public schools will suppress Maia’s curiosity.

For Lucia Colombaro and Jeremy Stark, summer began with celebration: Their daughter Maia turned 5 in June, and the family marked the milestone with a backyard full of children, cupcakes, and pony rides in their Dorchester driveway. But as July turned to August, they faced a momentous decision: whether to send Maia to kindergarten at Mather Elementary, the public school in Dorchester where she had gotten in, or to embrace the bold and daunting task of home-schooling their daughter.

It is a discussion they probably would not have had if they had gotten their first choice, Henderson Elementary, which they favored because of its integrated classrooms for children with and without disabilities. Still, on a visit to the Mather School, they had been impressed with the principal’s vision and with the way their daughter seemed instantly at ease.

The questions they found themselves asking, as the summer wore on, were bigger than the merits of a single public school.

“What would we really have wanted in our educations, not to feel just literate or capable, but creative and inventive and truly understanding of the world?” said Colombaro. “Is education in the public schools going to provide what we want to give our child?”

Both attended Boston public schools. Colombaro, 37, who stays home with their two daughters, graduated from Boston Latin. Stark, 40, who works in Web development, attended Boston English and went straight into the workforce after high school. They worry that a crowded classroom, bound by rules and schedules, will squelch Maia’s curiosity. But they also worry about the alternative. They say they will only home-school if they can find other families to join them. But they wonder what will happen when the families disagree about what and how to teach.

As dusk fell over their back garden one recent evening and their children returned from a walk with their grandmother, the couple said they feel drawn to create a new kind of education, even as they realize it would be a leap of faith.

“It’s all question marks,” Colombaro said. “We could take the easier path ... but to be around them when they’re learning things is so amazing.”

Even some parents who know where their children will go in September spend the summer ill at ease and wishing things could have been different. Ann Walsh, also of Dorchester, says her daughters will be fine at their new schools this fall, and for that she is grateful. But neither will be returning to Boston public schools, and that, she says, is “heartbreaking.”

In 2003, when she was pregnant with her first child, Walsh and her husband left West Newton and settled in Dorchester, intent on raising their children in a diverse urban setting. At Lee Academy, the small Dorchester pilot school where they sent their daughters, parents helped run the school and teachers made home visits to welcome new students. Walsh, 39, became a parent ambassador, talking up the city’s schools to strangers at playgrounds. “I was a zealot,” she remembers. “I was crazy for BPS.”

Everything changed last winter, when Boston Public Schools announced plans to merge the pilot school with the larger Lee Elementary School. Walsh and other parents fought to save it, drafting alternate proposals to free up space and money; officials preserved the pilot school’s four lower grades, but Walsh’s plans had been upended. Unwilling to send their 8-year-old to third grade in the larger, merged school or to risk leaving their 5-year-old in the pilot school without knowing where she would go in two years, she and her husband reluctantly looked elsewhere.

They entered their youngest in the charter school lottery, and she won a kindergarten seat at a brand-new school in Jamaica Plain. Their oldest is headed to a private school in Quincy. Walsh says it hurt to see engaged, committed families so discouraged, but she has not given up entirely on the school system: She plans to stay on as a board member at the downsized pilot school, even as she sends her own children elsewhere.

“It feels terrible,” she said. “But at some point, these are my children, and I needed to take care of them.”

Even though her son Jeffrey (far right) was reassigned from Marshall Elementary, which other parents advised against, to a new school, Betty Legendre of Mattapan said she plans to head to the Boston Public Schools office to request a new school.

Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff

Even though her son Jeffrey (far right) was reassigned from Marshall Elementary, which other parents advised against, to a new school, Betty Legendre of Mattapan said she plans to head to the Boston Public Schools office to request a new school.

On the last day of March, a shaken Betty Legendre returned to the office on Dorchester Avenue where she had first filled out her son’s lottery paperwork. She had learned, just an hour before, that this was the last day to enter the second round of the lottery, and she had rushed to get there, her two younger children in tow.

Waiting her turn in the busy hallway, dressed in a striped scarf and spotless boat shoes, Legendre studied the large color photos of school buildings hung on the wall. Then she turned to the other mothers waiting in a row of plastic chairs. Legendre sat down beside one of them, a young woman in a puffy black coat, and asked her which schools she thought were good.

The woman, Mariana Farias of Dorchester, patted Legendre’s arm. Deeply unhappy with the school her son attended, Farias had come to try the lottery again. The 30-year-old single mother, who works as a home health aide, confessed she had chosen her son’s school knowing little about it because its school day matched her work schedule.

“Sometimes we only think about what’s best for us,” Farias said in a firm but kindly tone. “I made that mistake, and I learned you can’t do that.”

Legendre nodded. She was still without work, but it was true she had favored Marshall in part because its hours fit the job she hoped to get.

Summoned into a cubicle to complete a new lottery form, she tried to make a fresh start. “I am new here,” she told the counselor. “I would like a good school.”

Two months later, Legendre was in Haiti visiting family when the letter arrived at the Mattapan apartment she shares with relatives. Her niece read her the news over the phone: Jeffrey had been reassigned to Taylor Elementary, sixth on her list of nine schools.

It was an improvement, maybe. But she still felt unsure.

“If I really had the choice, he would not go there,” she said.

She planned to return to the BPS office to request a different school.

Jenna Russell can be reached at jrussell@globe.com.
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