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Boston school plans would reduce travel time

The average distance students travel to school in Boston would shrink by about a half mile, under three proposals officials released Tuesday to allow more children to attend schools closer to their homes.

“It’s a significant savings” in traveling distance, said Carleton Jones, the School Department’s executive director of capital and facilities management. “Did we meet our goal of having more children attend schools closer to their home? We certainly did.”

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Mayor Thomas M. Menino instructed school officials last year to come up with a new student-assignment system that allows more children to attend schools closer to their homes, as he criticized the current system for tearing apart the fabric of neighborhoods by causing students who live on the same street to scatter to many different schools.

The three proposals released Tuesday would reduce the number of schools from which parents can choose to send their children to, but students would still travel on average more than a mile to school, ranging between 1.12 miles to 1.19 miles.

One proposal creates 10 assignment zones that divvy up the city’s approximately 80 elementary and K-8 schools and its early childhood centers, a plan that would offer between 3 and 14 school choices.

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One zone would stretch from the Fenway to South Boston, another from North Dorchester to Mattapan, and another would tie together West Roxbury and Hyde Park.

The two other proposals — created with assistance from an MIT doctoral student and a professor — call for no zones.

Instead, a complex algorithm would generate a list of schools parents can choose from based on a variety of factors, such as distance from home, school capacity, and MCAS performance.

One of the “no-zone” proposals would guarantee at least six school choices and the other at least nine.

The computer-generated plans seek to ensure that all parents have at least some good-performing schools to choose from, especially if there are none in immediate proximity to their homes.

The 10-zone plan and the two no-zone plans represent a big break from the current system, which divides the city into three large assignment zones, with each offering about two dozen choices. Students currently commute an average of 1.87 miles.

School officials will present the proposals Wednesday night to the External Advisory Committee, which Menino appointed last year to recommend changes to the student-assignment system.

Helen Dajer, the committee’s cochairwoman, said she has a favorite but declined to identify it, saying she wanted to keep an open mind.

“I want to hear what the community has to say and I want to hear feedback from other committee members,” Dajer said. “I have been swayed in the past.”

Other committee members also expressed optimism about the new proposals, which replace five initial plans pitched in September that were strongly criticized by many parents and some advisory committee members as leaving too many families with only low-performing schools to choose from.

“The good news is that all these options will get students attending schools near home, but ‘near’ is a relative term,” said John Nucci, a member of the panel who favors neighborhood-based schools. “To me, the challenge will be to decide which plan gets students closest to home and into a quality schools.”

Miren Uriarte, a committee member who has repeatedly raised concerns that some neighborhoods do not have quality schools, said she is leaning toward the no-zone options because the algo-rithm tries to ensure that all families have at least some good schools from which to choose.

“The nine-school model seems to offer more possibility, but I want to see how it plays out neighborhood by neighborhood,” Uriarte said.

Beyond the committee, some political leaders said they too were encouraged by the new proposals.

State Representative Marty Walz, a Boston Democrat, said she was pleased that the proposals include a commitment to opening a school in the Back Bay, Beacon Hill, or the West End — neighborhoods without a public school.

“It’s a step in the right direction, but there are many details to be confirmed, including a date by which downtown families will have space for a school,” Walz said.

“Families who live downtown have insufficient choices, and consequently they move to the suburbs or send their kids to private school,” Walz said.

Councilor John Connolly struck a more cautious note.

“I thought two of the three proposals are highly creative,” Connolly said of the no-zone plans. “But I’m still worried about their complexity when we want to simplify the assignment process, and I’m still concerned whether parents will be able to get access to seats close to home.”

Some community members expressed disappointment.

“There seems to be a lot of inequity,” said Mary Battenfeld, a Jamaica Plain mother and member of QUEST, a grassroots parents group.

Driving that inequity, she said, is that the proposals would still give admission preference to students who live near a school, which could be a boon for children who live near a high-performing school but could prevent those from neighborhoods with subpar schools from getting a seat there.

The advisory committee could vote on its recommendations next month.

The School Committee must approve any final plan.

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