The Boston public schools plan to use billboards, public service announcements, and informational meetings to educate parents about the biggest changes to the school-registration process in nearly 25 years.
The city is launching the massive outreach this month, in an effort to head off any confusion, just as dozens of schools open their doors to prospective families for informational tours. Over the next two months, thousands of families looking to register their children for kindergarten or middle school will examine a variety of options.
But starting that search will be immensely different this year under the new student-assignment system, which aims to let more students attend schools closer to their homes, starting next fall.
“We will have a lot of educating to do with families about how the home-based model works,” said Denise Snyder, senior director of welcome services for the School Department. “It’s really important to get people to pay attention.”
Under the new system, the School Department is scrapping an assignment plan developed under court-ordered desegregation. That system divided all of its elementary, middle, and K-8 schools into three geographic-based student-assignment zones — a practice that had allowed parents to see most of their options laid out neatly on a map.
Under the new plan, a complex algorithm will determine which schools a family can apply to based on a number of factors such as proximity, MCAS scores, and specialized programs. The switch will require parents to log onto a newly created website, DiscoverBPS.org, to run a search for which schools their children are eligible to attend. That website just went live on Friday.
“It’s not the easiest system to understand,” said Kim Janey, senior project director for Massachusetts Advocates for Children, a Boston nonprofit that closely monitors the School Department’s student assignment system. “My sense is there are still so many families who don’t realize this change is coming.”
A big part in getting the word out will be a series of two dozen information sessions, beginning at 6 p.m. Monday at the Boys and Girls Club in Roxbury. These sessions are in addition to the annual tours given by each school.
The School Department also will be changing the format of its Showcase of Schools, a sort of one-stop shopping experience where families could visit informational booths set up by each school at one location. The event will now be called Showcase In Our Schools — to be held Nov. 16 — and individual schools will be open for tours instead of sending representatives to a citywide event.
Even then, confusion could still persist, especially as parents from different parts of the city compare the quality and number of their school choices. That’s because a large number of factors can influence the outcome of the algorithm generating the list of school choices for each family.
Under the new system, the algorithm is designed to provide families with at least six schools whose MCAS scores rank in the top 75 percent of all schools in the system and the opportunity to apply to any citywide school.
The algorithm also allows families to apply to other schools within a 1-mile radius of their homes, which can boost numbers in densely populated areas that have many schools. Conversely, families in neighborhoods where there are far more children than seats available in their schools will have the opportunity to apply to schools farther away.
Another factor that can boost the number of choices is a promise by the School Committee to let parents apply to a school that an older sibling attends, even though that school might not have appeared under the algorithm as originally designed.
The multiple factors can yield quite lengthy lists. In Charlestown, which has only two schools with kindergarten programs, a family living on Monument Avenue nevertheless would receive a list of 14 schools, including the tiny Perkins Elementary School in South Boston, more than 3 miles away.
The billboard campaign also stresses that families will have more than six choices. The slogan reads “Discover 10 great schools minutes from this billboard.” Most of the signs are going up in neighborhoods where families tend to register their children later in the process: Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, and East Boston.
Veolia Transportation, which oversees the School Department’s bus operation, is paying for the billboard ads, and Clear Channel is charging a discounted public service rate.
Families can formally submit their school choices for the next school year starting in January. The School Department typically notifies families in March about whether they received any of their choices.
As with the old system, families will have to visit the schools they are interested in to make sure they are the right fit for their child.
“It is the feeling you get” when walking around the school, Snyder said. “It’s the warmth of the leaders when they talk, it’s what you see in the classrooms and on the walls.”