As parents, educators, and city leaders gathered at a Roxbury school Saturday morning to talk about revamping Boston’s school choice system, the conversation kept turning to the sometimes dramatic inequalities among the city’s schools.
“Until we make every school equal, then we can talk about changing the school assignment process,’’ said Karen Kast-McBride, a Roslindale parent who has two children in the system.
Interest in neighborhood schools - and the notion that families sharing a nearby school might build a stronger community - has fueled a new discussion about changing the school assignment process.
Mayor Thomas M. Menino told the audience of about 150 people at Orchard Gardens K-8 School on Saturday that “we have to build up our school community. We want kids on the same street to play together . . . to help each other with homework.’’
His remarks echoed his State of the City speech in January, when he called for overhauling school choice so students could attend schools closer to home.
Superintendent Carol R. Johnson said the district has made great strides in recent years and it is a good time to talk about neighborhood schools.
“Now we’re looking to see if we can give them quality closer to home,’’ she told reporters before the meeting.
But many parents at the meeting also came with more general interests. Jamaica Plain resident Shari Cole, whose son will enter kindergarten, or K-2, in September, said she was waiting to see if she got her top pick and came to the meeting to learn more.
“I want to be an involved parent,’’ said Cole eagerly before the meeting began. But after the meeting, she said she was feeling nervous.
“Now I’m a little fearful,’’ she said three hours later. “It’s not as transparent as I thought.’’
After talking with other parents, she worried she might be at a disadvantage because she didn’t enroll her son in prekindergarten, or K-1, through the school system. In school choice, the students already in K-1 at a school are given preference to stay at the same school for K-2.
“I think it’s very complicated for someone who’s never done it before,’’ said Cole.
Inequality of access to the school choice process was also a hot topic. Some parents know how to “game’’ the system, and others - sometimes because of a language barrier - don’t, many said.
“Not all parents have the information they need,’’ said Maria Dominguez Gray, a Roxbury resident who has one child in the school system and a second about to start.
Gray, who is executive director of the Phillips Brooks House Association, which offers after-school and summer camp programs for low-income families, said she learned how to navigate the system. She knew, for example, that because her top choice school was in demand, she was better off picking a second choice school that wasn’t equally difficult to get into. She also knew to start her oldest child in K-1, and it worked. Gray got her first choice.
Gray said she doesn’t want the choices parents have now to be sacrificed completely for the sake of getting children closer to home in neighborhood schools. But she praised the start of a community dialogue.
State Representative Byron Rushing, a South End Democrat, gave a history of segregation and desegregation in the Boston schools. “If we’re going to get this right, we’re not going back to anything,’’ he said. “We are creating something new.’’
Saturday’s meeting was the first in a series about creating a new school choice system. The next meetings are planned for March 24, at four Boston locations. For details, go to www.bostonpublicschools.org/view/community-meetings.