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Boston parents speak up on school wants

Officials hope to fix choice process

Parents across Boston want schools that offer strong academics and a safe environment close to home. But their priorities differ based on where they live, a new Boston School Department report shows.

Residents of Charlestown, downtown, parts of Dorchester, East Boston, and West Roxbury are more likely to say they want their children to attend a school in their neighborhood. Those in Jamaica Plain, Roslindale, Mattapan and Roxbury prioritize safety over proximity.

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The differing priorities illustrate the competing interests school officials must weigh as they design a new method to assign children to schools across the city. The complicated school-choice process — the subject of a yearlong series in the Globe last year — baffles and frustrates many parents, who say a system designed to promote fair access often unfairly shuts them out of the schools they choose.

Boston school officials hope to unveil proposals for revamping the student-assignment process in the fall and are weighing the feedback they received from members of the community at a series of public meetings and in online surveys.

An External Advisory Committee composed of parents and community members will also make recommendations on the best option to pursue in the fall. And a subcommittee of that panel meets Monday to begin examining a cache of data from the School Department, now posted online at bostonschoolchoice.org.

“We felt it was incredibly important to assemble that data and make it public so that everyone knew the data that was available to analyze any number of models,” said Laura Perille, a Boston school parent who cochairs the data subcommittee. She also works as executive director of EdVestors, a nonprofit that works in partnership with donors to fund programs and school change initiatives.

The data provide information about the 125 schools across the city and the students who attend them.

As school officials reconsider the assignment plan, they are focused on maintaining opportunities for all students, regardless of where they live.

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Some charts, for instance, show the number of high-quality schools in each of the three zones that form the current geographic boundaries for students to apply for placements. If those zones change in future proposals, officials and parents want to ensure that each one has quality schools to offer.

Another spreadsheet details students’ race, neighborhood, and current school placement, so committee members can analyze the movement of students across the city.

“In the past, people had to imagine what those models might do for them,” Perille said. “This time, by having this huge amount of data not only available to everyone but also deliberately used to analyze and make recommendations, we can actually say, ‘This is what it will look like.’ ”

Although the panels are in the early stages of revamping the plan, the clock is ticking: In his State of the City speech in January, Mayor Thomas M. Menino committed to overhaul the system within the year. Among his goals: Send children to classes closer to home.

The current student-assignment method is so complicated and fractious that school officials discovered that many families could not begin to make suggestions about a new system until they understood the current one.

“BPS staff discovered we were spending more time than expected answering questions and clarifying how and why the current system is set up the way it is, which we believe was necessary to begin a conversation about how to improve,” says a newly released school report on the community input.

In the existing plan — which is still being used for assigning students to schools this fall — families get to pick schools from a range of choices in their respective zone. The district then assigns students based on a host of criteria — including their proximity to the school and any siblings already attending it — and offers no guarantees that choices will be fulfilled.

The system was adopted in the late 1980s to provide students across the city access to desirable schools and to prevent resegregation after the era of court-ordered busing came to an end. One key aim of revamping the system is to reduce the number of schools that students can apply to and thereby curb the expense of busing them.

As school officials reconsider the hot-button issue, they are focused on maintaining opportunities for all students, regardless of where they live. Community members, too, voiced a commitment to ensuring all students fair access — not just in the quantity of school choices but also in the quality of their options.

Over the past several months, more than 2,300 community members offered input online and at community meetings, exposing the difficult nuances of a system that was never black and white. Even the statement that schools should promote “safety” meant different things to different people, school officials realized.

Some parents expressed concern about the safety of the neighborhood where a school was located, but others fretted about their children’s safety on the bus or the very notion of sending small children across Boston on a bus. Others, when they spoke of safety, focused on bullying.

Parents who already had students in the school worried more about school culture and safety than they did about the proximity of the school. But parents of very young children, who had not yet started school, valued proximity over everything else, school officials report.

School officials say they are aiming for transparency in a process that often gets mired in hostility.

Previous attempts to revamp the assignment process have foundered. In one such effort, in 2004, people got stuck on the notion that there simply weren’t enough high-quality schools to ensure equal access to all, Perille said.

“The question now is, we’re in a different place with how schools have progressed and changed,” she said. “That doesn’t mean there’s 100-percent quality, but parents are also frustrated with distance of transportation, the lack of transparency, with the complications of the current lottery and process. We’ve heard loud and clear through the community input process.”

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @stephanieebbert.
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