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Adrian Walker

Test time for Boston schools panel

As a former Boston School Committee president and city councilor, and a current member of the panel overhauling the city’s nightmarish school assignment process, John Nucci is a decorated veteran of Boston’s public school battles. He believes the next few months pose the best opportunity in years to finally reconnect schools to their neighborhoods.

“We have to do something bold,” he said last week. “Moving a few lines here and there won’t cut it. The mayor is right that the goal has to be quality schools close to home.”

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Several months ago, Mayor Thomas M. Menino appointed something called the External Advisory Committee to formulate a plan for fixing school assignments in the city. The panel includes academics, activists, parents — a broad and highly credible range of stakeholders. They have conducted hearings, pored over maps and plans, and are due to report back in about a month to the mayor and the school committee on the best way to fix the assignment process. But that description of their task in no way encompasses what they have really been asked to grapple with. For in Boston, “school assignment” is really a polite term for busing. Busing, in turn, is a code word fraught with fears of racism and inequity, fears borne of decades of proven racism and inequity. “My biggest fear is that the committee itself will break down along racial lines,” Nucci said. “Because if that happens, we’re done.”

That concern was confirmed by another member of the committee. He spoke anonymously because committee members have agreed not to discuss their work publicly.

“Everyone is concerned about this,” the member said. “There are people who believe if children in Roxbury don’t continue to have access to schools outside of Roxbury they will not have access to superior schools. Those are the people who will vote for little or no change. Those are people who will resist neighborhood schools because neighborhoods schools limit choice.”

There is no great affection for the system in place. The city’s schools are divided into three zones, and parents have limited choice on which schools their children attend. The system is a maze, one in which children are bused all over town, passing school after school near their homes before they get to their assigned destination.

This patchwork — which, incidentally, costs millions each year to operate — is intended to give more students the opportunity to attend quality schools. It also reflects another, somewhat more antiquated goal: desegregation.

Before school busing in the 1970s, Boston had white schools and minority schools. But after four decades of white flight, that is hardly the case. The public school system is just 13 percent white. If you take the exam schools out of the equation, the percentage drops into the single digits. You couldn’t segregate the Boston public schools now if you wanted to.

That doesn’t necessarily soothe the fears of those who don’t trust the School Department when it proclaims its commitment to fairness. It doesn’t help that most of the district’s underperforming schools, to this day, are in minority neighborhoods.

Advocates of educating as many children as possible close to home believe that neighborhood schools will allow parents to advocate for their children. They think engaged parents will do more to improve schools than anything else the city could do. They may well be right.

“Parent involvement is a cornerstone of quality schools,” Nucci said. “That can’t happen if a kid is going to school across town. A lot of parents have never visited their child’s school, through no fault of their own. Schools improve when parents own the schools their children attend.”

No assignment plan is going to fix the Boston public schools, but greater parental engagement in schools can only be a good thing. Getting there will require a leap of faith in a school system that has earned the skepticism people feel for it. Whether the school assignment committee can make that leap will be the first test.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.
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