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Don’t split siblings by school, say Boston parents

A growing number of Boston parents, worried that potential changes to the way Boston assigns students to schools could separate siblings, are pushing school leaders for a policy that would keep families together.

More than 1,200 parents and other supporters have signed petitions urging that when a younger sibling starts kindergarten, that child can attend the same school as older brothers or sisters, even if their family’s home is no longer in that school’s attendance area.

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Without that assurance, over the five years following any school assignment system change, an estimated 2,500 to 4,200 younger siblings could be shut out of a school that an older sibling attends, according to a rough projection from the School Department.

“You can’t strengthen neighborhoods by breaking apart families,” said Barbara Martinez, a Roslindale mother.

Martinez presented the first batch of signatures from two online petitions that advocate for the “grandfathering of siblings” Thursday night to the external advisory committee on student assignment, which Mayor Thomas M. Menino appointed earlier this year.

The prospect of siblings attending different schools has many parents on edge. Not only does it make it harder for parents to get involved in their children’s education, a critical element of a school’s vibrancy, but it brings a host of logistical issues: There would be two sets of teachers and administrators, different parent councils and fund-raising efforts, and potentially different school start and end times, to name a few.

Or parents could face the unthinkable: Uproot their older children and send them to the school the younger sibling gets assigned to under a new student assignment system — a disruption that could cause an academic setback or take older siblings away from friends.

Susan Field, a Jamaica Plain mother, faces such a predicament. Field has a 5-year-old daughter at the Mendell School in Roxbury, but her nearly 2-year-old son would probably be barred from attending the Mendell because the school would no longer be in the assignment area for their home.

“It gives me a pit in my stomach,” said Field, as she thinks about the choice. “Will I want to uproot my daughter from a school she loves and thrives at and send her to the same school as her younger brother, or do I want to send my children to two separate schools?”

Some advisory committee members stand firmly behind the parents, even though the School Department, in literature disseminated to parents this fall, took a stance against grandfathering the out-of-zone younger siblings.

“I don’t see how we can support any assignment plan that breaks up families; to me it’s out of the question,” said John Nucci, a former city councilor and member of the mayor’s advisory committee on student assignment.

But other advisory committee members disagree.

Helen Dajer, who cochairs the advisory committee, said she expects members will have a healthy discussion on the issue, and will probably make a recommendation. The advisory committee could vote next month on all recommendations to change student assignment, which would then be forwarded to Superintendent Carol R. Johnson, who will present them to the School Committee for a final vote.

The grandfathering of students has been one of the most contentious issues to emerge since Menino announced in January his desire to overhaul the city’s more than 20-year-old student assignment system, which divides the city into three sprawling geographic regions.

Initially, school officials were hesitant about even grandfathering in students at their current schools, concerned about the cost of busing.

But after parents protested this fall, school officials made clear they would grandfather students currently enrolled but would not extend that guarantee to siblings whose family’s homes were no longer in the school’s attendance region.

A big concern among school officials about grandfathering out-of-zone siblings is that it could essentially cause the School Department to operate the current student assignment system and a new one simultaneously for many years to come as thousands of siblings — some of whom are not born yet — work their way through the system.

The scenario could come with pitfalls. Some schools might not have enough seats for everyone and it could push up busing costs, which now exceed more than $80 million.

But many parents say separating siblings thwarts one of Menino’s chief goals for a new assignment system: Allowing more students to attend schools closer to home, in an effort to build more cohesive neighborhoods.

Dajer said Menino has not taken a position on grandfathering siblings, but he acknowledged in a meeting on Friday with her and Nucci that “it was really important to a lot of families and he is eagerly looking forward to our recommendations.”

Grandfathering siblings is an issue that has flared up in other cities that have changed student-assignment systems.

Seattle, for instance, which recently returned to a system largely based on neighborhood schools after years of offering broad choice, did not grandfather in younger siblings who lived outside school assignment zones. But officials did allow them to apply to the schools if there were seats available.

Seattle officials initially thought they would be able to accommodate the out-of-zone siblings, but enrollment suddenly jumped after years of decline and many schools did not have enough space.

Boston parents are hoping to have the issue resolved by early January.

“It’s impossible to think parents can have kids at two different schools and make it work,” said Leslie Candy, a Dorchester mother who is heading up one of the petitions. “They won’t have the time or energy to advocate for one of the schools when it needs to happen.”

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