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Boston’s plans would let more attend school close to home

Boston school officials will unveil three revised student-assignment proposals Tuesday that would allow more children to attend schools closer to their homes, as an advisory committee prepares to make a final recommendation in the coming weeks.

The proposals would scrap Boston’s system of assigning students to schools, which was implemented more than two decades ago to comply with court-ordered desegregation and carves the city into three geographic assignment zones that each offer families about two dozen school choices.

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All of the new proposals will differ from five initial plans school officials presented to the advisory committee in September. Many advisory committee members and a host of parents and community activists faulted those plans for leaving too many families with a choice of only low-achieving schools.

School officials offered few specifics last week about the new proposals, but they described them in broad outlines. All would offer parents some choice in which school their children attend.

“We certainly want to make sure whatever proposal is eventually decided on will give students a fair chance of going to a quality school,” said Matthew Wilder, a School Department spokesman.

One of the new proposals would chop the city into smaller assignment zones, which would offer anywhere from three to 14 choices of schools, Wilder said.

The two other proposals would have no zones. Instead, families would be able to apply to schools within a certain distance of their homes. One model would generate between six and 14 choices, while the other would range between six and 16, Wilder said.

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The number of choices varies because some neighborhoods have a higher concentration of schools.

Overhauling the student-assignment system has been a top priority for Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who believes that allowing more students on the same street to attend the same school will build stronger neighborhoods. He also wants an assignment system with more predictability so parents have a better sense from the start which school their children might attend.

School officials will release the proposals on the School Department’s website Tuesday afternoon. They will then formally present them Wednesday night at a public meeting of the External Advisory Committee, appointed by Menino last year.

Helen Dájer, committee cochairwoman, said she is excited to see what school officials present. “There is no perfect solution, but we are headed in the right direction,” Dájer said.

The revised models are based on the views of the advisory committee, community members, and outside experts.

A vote has not been scheduled on the revised proposals, but Dájer said it will probably occur in February. The goal is to have a new system enacted in time to assign students to schools for fall 2014.

Whatever proposal the committee ultimately recommends will be forwarded to Superintendent Carol R. Johnson. She will then submit it to the School Committee for a final vote.

Many parents and education advocates remain wary about changing the student-assignment system until the School Department increases the number of schools that provide a quality education.

That sentiment has doomed other attempts to change student assignment for more than a decade.

“I think the real bottom line continues to be what is the district going to do to ensure access to quality education for all children,” said Barbara Fields, an executive board member of the Black Educators Alliance of Massachusetts and a retired Boston School Department administrator. “I don’t see how changing the chairs on the deck will do that.”

While school officials agree that many schools still require academic overhauls, they say that there are far more quality schools now than a decade ago and about 100 schools have waiting lists — a barometer, they say, of parental satisfaction.

Some parents are cautiously optimistic the revised proposals will represent an improvement over the ones presented in September and are eager to see the details.

“It has to be better . . . that’s a victory in and of itself for parents,” said Mary Battenfeld, a Jamaica Plain mother who is a member of QUEST, a grass-roots parents group. “There is hope there will be some equitable access to quality schools built into the plans.”

All the proposals will let students who are currently enrolled in a school stay in that school. The proposals will also let their younger siblings attend the same school when they enter kindergarten, even if their home is no longer in the school-assignment area.

“We said all along we are trying to get the best of the best,” Dájer said. “The fairest chance of your child getting into a quality school is guiding everything we are doing.”

The advisory committee will meet at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Suffolk University.

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

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