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City considers school assignment plans

Adisory panel gets to weigh in

No favorite emerged Wednesday night after school officials presented three proposals to an advisory committee weighing changes in the way the city assigns students to schools.

Members of the External ­Advisory Committee asked questions on each plan, ranging from whether the proposals ­offer parents too many choices to whether all students truly have equal access to the city’s best-performing schools.

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“I think it will be hard to make the case to have 12 kids on the same street going to 12 different schools,” said William Walczak, a committee member. “We need to consider that in our deliberations.”

But Kelly Bates, another committee member, said: “My biggest concern is equitable ­access to quality. . . . How do we ensure access to children who live in areas that don’t have high-quality schools?”

The advisory committee is delving into one of the most vexing issues that has thwarted previous attempts to change the city’s 24-year-old student-assignment process: how to shrink the geographic areas from which families can choose schools in a city where there are too few good schools, particularly when many are clustered in certain neighborhoods.

The prevailing wisdom has been to offer ample choices.

Under the current system, the city’s approximately 80 elementary and K-8 schools and early childhood centers are ­divided into three student-
assignment zones, each offering families a choice of roughly two dozen schools.

The three proposals presented Wednesday night would ­reduce those choices.

One plan would create 10 geographically based assignment zones, which would offer from three to 14 choices of schools, depending on the area of the city.

The two other proposals — developed with assistance from a doctoral student and a professor at MIT — call for no zones. Instead, a complex algorithm would generate a list of schools parents can choose that would be based on a variety of factors, such as distance from home, school capacity, and standardized test scores. One of those proposals would guarantee at least six choices, the other at least nine. Each list would have medium- and high-performing schools on it.

School officials also pledged during the presentation to work diligently to bolster the quality of more schools and noted that Mayor Thomas M. Menino has filed legislation to let the superintendent extend the school day, hire new teachers, and make other changes at low-performing schools.

But access to good schools repeatedly came up Wednesday night, as committee members prepare to vote on recommendations in the coming weeks.

Some committee members wondered whether the School Department should continue to give special admission preference to students within walking distance of a school, a policy that can benefit students who live near a high-performing school to the detriment of other students who do not have such a school nearby.

“I’m trying to wrap my head around the walk zone and why we still need a walk zone,” said Helen Dajer, the committee’s cochairwoman, who then asked school officials to rerun admission projections under the proposals without giving students a walk-zone preference.

Rahn Dorsey, another advisory committee member, wanted to know which students in the city would still have the least access to the best schools. He pointed to a bar graph from the presentation that showed a student’s opportunity to apply to a good school increased by only a few percentage points under each proposal, compared with the current system.

“Is the change presented in the slide robust enough for us?” Dorsey asked.

During public comments, parents and education advocates also posed a variety of questions.

One mother urged the School Department to move away from a definition of good schools that relies exclusively on state standardized test scores, while a father argued that a walk-zone preference in assigning students to schools would no longer be necessary under the three plans.

“As you shrink the zones people choose schools from, you will naturally increase the kids in the walk zone,” Josh Weiss said. “We don’t really need this priority. It really confuses things.”

Whatever recommendation the advisory committee makes would have to be approved by the School Committee.

Michael O’Neill, the School Committee chairman, said he is eager to see what the advisory committee recommends.

“I think they are taking a ­detailed, thoughtful approach to this,” O’Neill said.

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