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A bid for equity in school choice plan

An advisory committee, racing to meet a November deadline to recommend a new student-assignment system for Boston, is weighing whether to give low-income students a priority to attend better-performing schools in other neighborhoods, a potentially divisive move that could address inequities but also take away seats from more affluent applicants who live nearby.

The External Advisory Committee , appointed by the mayor, will meet Saturday morning at City Hall to hear a presentation on one potential method for providing more options to students living in neighborhoods that are dominated by low-performing schools and tend to have high poverty rates.

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The committee is charged with reviewing proposed changes to the student-assignment system and recommending a plan to the Boston School Committee that allows more students to attend schools closer to their homes. Mayor Thomas M. Menino has said he wants to overhaul the system in an effort to build stronger neighborhoods, increase parental involvement, reduce busing costs, and simplify the process of registering students for school.

But some advisory committee members are concerned that under the proposals recently made by school officials, many low-income students could lose any chance of attending a better-performing school, a situation that could ultimately prevent them from gaining a strong enough education to catapult them out of poverty.

“They have been disadvantaged for years and years,” said Helen Dajer, a cochairwoman of the advisory committee and a Boston public school parent who formerly served on the School Committee. “It’s not good for our city and society to keep them disadvantaged.”

But Dajer added it will not be an easy decision to make: Giving low-income students a priority in the student-assignment process could reduce the chances of other students of getting a seat in a school near their homes.

“There are only so many seats, and that is worrisome,” Dajer said.

‘They have been disadvantaged for years and years. It’s not good for our city and society to keep them disadvantaged.’

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The city’s uneven distribution of schools with solid academic records has doomed previous attempts to change Boston’s 23-year-old system of assigning students to schools, originally designed to comply with court-ordered desegregation.

A goal of that system, which divides the city into three sprawling geographic attendance regions, was to give every student a fair shot of attending one of the city’s better schools within those regions.

The designers of the system also had hoped that the less popular schools would be compelled to improve in an effort to attract more families. As the number of quality schools multiplied, they believed, the city could eventually evolve toward something closer to neighborhood schools. But broad improvement has eluded the city.

This time, school officials had hoped the city had finally overcome the issue of a lack of quality schools. They say the number of high-performing schools has increased — citing more schools with higher test scores and waiting lists — and they also announced they would step up efforts to overhaul 21 persistently low-performing schools so the city can have smaller assignment zones.

In September, school officials pitched proposals to create six, nine, 11, or 23 assignment zones and also presented a zone-free option that would simply assign students to the closest school to their home with available seats.

But two sets of research — one from a team of faculty and graduate students from Harvard University and another by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council — have found that too many areas of the city would have too few, if any, quality schools.

The prospect of giving low-income students higher priority is resonating with education advocates who work on behalf of disadvantaged students, but say that alone cannot solve the problem.

“I commend the external advisory committee for looking at ways that would ensure equitable access to quality schools, but at the end of the day there just isn’t enough quality to go around,” said Kim Janey, senior project director for Massachusetts Advocates for Children, a Boston nonprofit. “There really has to be a focus on improving quality throughout the district.”

The advisory committee is contemplating a number of strategies to even the odds for all families to get into a decent school.

At Saturday’s meeting, Peng Shi, a doctoral candidate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Operations Research Center, will present a zone-free student-assignment model that would provide students who have no or slim odds for a quality school in their neighborhood the opportunity to apply to certain higher-performing schools in other neighborhoods.

Another strategy that generated discussion at a meeting earlier this week was a request that some advisory committee members made to the School Department to examine the proposal for 23 assignment zones, to determine whether a zone that has predominantly low-performing schools could be paired with a zone that has better schools.

The zones being paired would not have to be geographically contiguous, and students in the zones with better schools could wind up with an assignment in a low-performing school zone.

The advisory committee’s work in developing intervention strategies has been creating buzz among parents across the city.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Megan Wolf, a Jamaica Plain mother and a member of a grass-roots parent group pushing to slow down the process of redesigning the student-assignment system. “But it remains to be seen how it will play out. Will the intervention be enough?”

City Councilor John Connolly, who is among a small group of elected officials that pitched its own proposal to overhaul assignment, which would offer families a choice of a handful of schools near their home as well as some citywide options, said he was encouraged the advisory committee is pushing for a more creative plan.

“I think that’s a real positive development,” said Connolly, noting that his proposal has garnered nearly 2,000 signatures from the community. “But now the key question that is unanswered is what will the final option look like.”

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.
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