Study finds inequities in schools’ zone plans

As Boston school officials propose new ways to assign students to schools, an analysis last week by a Harvard professor suggests that the plans are less fair than the current system and would make it even harder for students in the poorest neighborhoods to get into the city’s best schools.

The report suggested that although students who live in different parts of Boston now have unequal access to the city’s best schools, the proposals would increase that inequity and at least one would create new school zones without any high-quality schools.

“In general, all of these plans are less equitable than the current school assignment policy,” said Meira Levinson, a professor in the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the mother of two Boston public school students.


Boston school officials announced the proposals last week to an advisory committee created by Mayor Thomas M. Menino. In November, the committee will recommend one of the proposals to the School Committee, which will make the final decision.

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Matthew Wilder, a spokesman for Boston public schools, said officials had not yet studied Levinson’s analysis, which was finished Friday. Wilder noted that schools officials are working to improve some struggling schools at the same time that they redesign the way students are assigned.

From parents, he said, “what we have heard over and over again [is] that they want their child to attend a high-quality school close to home. That’s what we’re attempting to do here.”

He also questioned the way Levinson classified the performance of schools. During public hearings on school assignment, he said, parents and others have not always agreed on how to define school quality.

Levinson decided to study the new proposals after some community groups concerned about the process asked her to look into the data released last week by Boston school officials. She recruited some graduate students to help analyze the proposals, which would change the way students from prekindergarten to eighth grade are assigned to schools. Currently, the city is divided into three geographical zones, and students are sent to schools within their zones.


Four of the proposals released last week would create between six and 23 zones; the fifth would eliminate zones and assign children to local schools, as long as there were enough seats available. The report did not address the no-zone proposal.

Levinson and her coauthors started by classifying each of the 65 schools that would be part of the redistricting into three categories: high quality, medium quality, and low quality. (Eleven other schools and early learning centers were missing state ranking data, sometimes because they were newly created or recently merged schools, the report said.)

Levinson used three measures to rate the schools: MCAS composite scores, which include improvement; rankings by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education; and popularity by parents requesting schools for their children .

The report noted that the current system does not give students equal access to quality schools. While one-third of white and Asian children attend quality schools, only 1 in 10 black children and 1 in 5 Hispanic children attend quality schools, according to the report.

But the more zones created in the proposals, the less fair the result, Levinson said. Currently, the greatest disparity in the system exists between the west zone, where 27 percent of students attend a high-quality school, and the east zone, where 14 percent of students do.


But in the proposal that would create six zones, her analysis found, students who lived in one of the zones would be seven times more likely to attend a high-quality school than students who lived in another of the zones. And in the 23-zone proposal — where each zone would contain between two and five schools — 13 zones would not include a single high-quality school. In one zone, both of its schools are considered high-quality.

‘I would really like a rich discussion about how to make all of these schools high quality schools. This just feels like time and money diverted from how to give everyone an excellent education.’

Levinson is happy with the placement of her two children, a first-grader and a fourth-grader, in the Rafael Hernandez School. Because they are in a citywide school, she said, her children would not be affected by the proposals. But she and some other parents have formed a group to discuss the proposed changes, worrying that other Boston parents would not have the same access to quality schools.

Another parent in the group, Nora Bloch, whose children also attend the Hernandez School, said neighborhoods whose residents have higher incomes tend to have better schools.

“It’s so hard because the current system that we have is definitely flawed,” she said. “In the three-zone plan, the high-quality schools are not evenly distributed among the three zones. As the zones get smaller, the inequity gets larger.”

Bloch and other parents also say that unanswered questions about the new proposals — whether children currently in schools would be allowed to stay, for instance — make them difficult to assess. And they are frustrated that school officials are taking public comments on the complicated proposals for less than three weeks.

She and other parents were also disappointed the plans did not address how to improve the overall quality of Boston schools.

“I would really like a rich discussion about how to make all of these schools high quality schools,” Bloch said. “This just feels like time and money diverted from how to give everyone an excellent education.”

School officials have said they want to redistrict the school system partly to make the process easier for parents. But Levinson argues that the system can be stressful because no one can guarantee their children will be sent to the city’s best schools.

“It’s anxiety-provoking because it means as a Boston parent, if you have resources, you cannot actually buy your way into a [high-quality] Boston public school,” Levinson said. “You have to take your chances. I think that’s a good thing.”

Kathleen Burge can be reached at