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MIT has plan for Boston school assignments

A new proposal for Boston school assignments presented Saturday by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology doctoral student was essentially pushed to front-runner status by an advisory committee, as five other proposals began to fall off the table, just one month after they were unveiled.

The External Advisory Committee, appointed by the mayor, heard a presentation on the MIT proposal for the first time during a meeting Saturday morning at City Hall. Several members said it showed the greatest potential of providing equitable access to the city’s limited number of quality schools, as the panel seeks to create a student-assignment system that allows more students to attend schools closer to their homes.

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A key challenge in overhauling the current system, which provides students a wide range of school choices, has been a troubling reality: Long after Boston’s period of busing students, the system continues to be unfair, with many students attending schools that are lackluster or failing, typically located in impoverished areas, while others go to better ones.

Under the proposal developed by Peng Shi of MIT’s Operations Research Center, Boston would scrap its 23-year-old student-assignment system that divides the city’s schools into three sprawling geographic zones. Instead, a computerized system would simply generate a choice of at least four schools near a family’s home.

If there are no quality schools nearby, the computerized system would then add one or more opportunities for students to seek seats at higher-quality schools further away.

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Helen Dajer, co-chairwoman of the advisory committee, said in an interview after the meeting that the MIT proposal appeared to be the best starting point as the panel moves toward making a final recommendation to the School Committee in a month or so.

“Peng’s model is creative and dynamic, and it can stand the test of time,” said Dajer, a former School Committee member whose children attend Boston schools.

But the model has a potential downside. As students who live near a low-performing school gain access to a better school elsewhere, students who live near that higher-quality school could be assigned to the low-performing schools.

A hypothetical situation floated Saturday centered on Mattapan, a neighborhood with high poverty and predominantly low-performing schools. Shi ’s model could let students who live near Mattapan’s Mattahunt Elementary School, which was declared underperforming last month by the state, to apply for seats at the better-performing Beethoven School.

Conversely, West Roxbury students who live near the Beethoven would then get the Mattahunt among their choices of schools to apply to and could result in placement there — a prospect that could cause their parents to seek educational opportunities at private schools or to leave the city entirely.

John Nucci, an advisory committee member, said in an interview after the meeting that he was uncomfortable with reducing the odds of students attending a school near their homes, believing proximity makes it easier to foster parental involvement, which can push forward a school’s academic fortunes.

“I understand there are trade-offs involved, but we need to place a premium on a system that allows parents to be involved in their children’s school,” said Nucci, a former School Committee member who lives in East Boston, a neighborhood where families have for decades had first dibs on their schools because the neighborhood is isolated from the rest of the city. “It’s no coincidence that schools in East Boston are high-performing and that parents live close to the schools and are highly involved.”

Nevertheless, Nucci said it was worthwhile to give Shi’s plan further consideration.

The sudden ascendancy of the MIT model took many observers of the nearly year-long process of examining changes to Boston’s student assignment system by surprise.

Ever since the School Department presented five proposals last month to the advisory committee, observers long suspected the front-runner was the School Department’s proposal for creating nine geographic-assignment zones. The other School Department proposals called for six, 11, or 23 assignment zones, while an additional option would have automatically assigned a student to a school with available seats closest to their home.

But the advisory committee increasingly became weary of all five of those proposals, after many parents and two research reports raised concerns that those options could lock out too many areas of the city from access to better schools in other neighborhoods. The advisory committee also heard proposals from other residents and a group of elected officials on how they would change the student assignment system.

The advisory committee says it is interested in taking the “best of the best” as it formulates its recommendation and tries to winnow down the number of proposals before it.

For now, Dajer said the School Department’s proposals for nine and 11 zones are off the table.

The advisory committee did request on Saturday that the School Department revise its proposals with an eye toward increasing access to quality schools for the six and 23 zones as well as the option that would assign students to just one school.

But that work is being done primarily as a precautionary measure as the advisory committee seeks to refine the MIT proposal, in an effort to ensure they have the best proposal.

Shi will be working for the next two weeks to revise his proposal. The advisory committee asked that his model incorporate the placements of students who require specific programs for special education or for learning English, which tend to be located at certain schools. The committee also requested that Shi create a better socio-economic mix in matching up schools from different neighbohoods.

During public comments, Harneen Chernow, a Boston parent who also is on the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, questioned whether Shi was using the appropriate data to determine whether a school was achieving strong academic results, because he appeared to be characterizing too many schools as good quality.

“Sixty percent of BPS seats are not quality,” Chernow said.

Barbara Fields, of the Black Educators Alliance of Massachusetts, expressed apprehension about moving toward proposals that offered students only a handful of school choices, especially after several panel members last month seemed to immediately dismiss the School Department’s proposals for 23 zones and the no-choice option.

But Fields said she was withholding final judgment.

“I’m one who believes the devil’s in the details,” Fields said.

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