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Boston parents acclimate to school choice system

Thousands are registering children using a new process

Camelia Toussaint of Dorchester registered her daughter with specialist Denisha Pena as her son, Jeremai, waited in a stroller. Some parents were concerned about the lottery aspect of the process.

LANE TURNER/GLOBE STAFF

Camelia Toussaint of Dorchester registered her daughter with specialist Denisha Pena as her son, Jeremai, waited in a stroller. Some parents were concerned about the lottery aspect of the process.

Kimida Torres, a Dorchester mother, thought she had found the perfect school for her 5-year-old son: Orchard Gardens K-8 School in neighboring Roxbury. It had rising MCAS scores, an assortment of afterschool activities, and a preschool program — giving her hope that her 3-year-old daughter could attend, too.

But when Torres shared her decision with a customer service representative at a school registration center in Dorchester, she received some startling news. Orchard Gardens was not an option, after all. Under Boston’s new student-assignment system, it was too far from their home.

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“Oh, man,” a disappointed Torres responded in a soft voice.

For the past three weeks, thousands of parents of incoming kindergarten and sixth-grade students have been registering for school under the new system, the biggest change to the registration process in decades that aims to place students in schools closer to their homes starting this fall.

Denise Snyder, senior director of welcome services for the school system, acknowledges that some parents are caught off guard or confused by the new system.

‘It’s kind of like gambling. The school can look good on the outside, but it’s not until you get inside. . . that you know the school.’

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But, Snyder added: “The confusion is less than what I anticipated. I was really nervous going into this, and I was preparing the team for difficult conversations.”

Families, for the most part, appear to be receptive to the changes and are not pushing back when they learn a favorite school is no longer an option, Snyder said.

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So far, registration numbers are running slightly higher than last year. As of Wednesday, the school system had received 3,614 registration forms at its four family welcoming centers, 113 more than the previous year at that time.

The registration period ends Jan. 31 for the first round of the lottery that determines whether families get any of their school choices. Additional registration periods will follow, but there will be fewer schools with open seats. Parents have to register in person so they can present their child’s birth certificate, immunization records, and proof of residency.

The new system, approved by the School Committee last March after more than a year of research and debate, is quite different from the old one. For 25 years, the city divided schools into three sprawling geographic-based zones, under a plan to comply with court-ordered desegregation that offered families a choice of about two dozen schools.

Schools are no longer divided into assignment zones. Instead, a computer algorithm generates a list of schools that considers such factors as distance from a family’s home, school capacity, and MCAS performance. The algorithm guarantees a minimum of six school choices, including at least four of medium or high quality. But in many cases, families in densely populated neighborhoods with many nearby schools are receiving more than a dozen options.

Kimida Torres of Dorchester waited to register at a Boston schools welcoming center. She reviewed the options.

Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Kimida Torres of Dorchester waited to register at a Boston schools welcoming center. She reviewed the options.

Families can also request a school that an older sibling already attends. The algorithm, however, does not always generate this as a choice, a last-minute glitch that forces customer service reps to manually add it to a family’s list.

To educate parents about the changes, the school system launched a massive public outreach effort in November, airing public service announcements, renting billboards, and holding 24 informational meetings in neighborhoods across the city.

During lunch time one day last week, parents interviewed at the Dorchester family welcoming center were aware of the changes, but did not always fully grasp how the new system works.

Torres, for example, thought the elimination of the assignment zones meant that parents could choose any school in the city. In reality, the algorithm limits choices to within a mile of a family’s home, and will only go further out if there are not enough good-performing schools or ones with enough seats. Parents also have the choice of a handful of citywide schools.

Torres did not protest when the customer service representative informed her that Orchard Gardens was too far away She simply moved up her second choice — the Mather Elementary School, near her Dorchester home — as her first choice. She also applied to six other schools, choosing from a list of 15 the representative printed out for her.

“I was a little bummed about Orchard Gardens,” Torres, a van driver for the mentally ill, later explained. But she added: “It will be OK. I have good faith in the Mather. The schools in Boston are really good. You can’t complain.”

A top concern among parents was the same one expressed under the previous system — having a lottery determine whether their child gets a seat at any of the schools you requested. Failure to secure a seat often means parents have to submit a new set of choices for a subsequent round of the lottery. Some parents, fed up with the uncertainty of the lottery, move out the city.

“I don’t like not knowing if your child will get a seat,” said Camelia Toussaint, of Dorchester, who was registering her daughter for kindergarten at the Dorchester center.

But even if parents receive their top choice, satisfaction is not a guarantee, Toussaint said.

“It’s kind of like gambling,” she said. “The school can look good on the outside, but it’s not until you get inside and get acclimated that you know the school.”

Hanh Tran, of the Ashmont section of Dorchester, said she found the new system limited choices too much. While she received 14 school options, Tran saw the list narrow considerably as she sought a school with a full-time nurse — a high priority because her son has asthma.

“I hope he gets a seat at one of the schools,” said Tran, a nail technician, who ranked the Murphy K-8 in Dorchester as her top pick.

If not, she said, she will try her luck again.

James Vaznis can be reached atjvaznis@globe.com.

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