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The Boston Globe

Metro

Boston school-assignment letters in the mail

After months of waiting and angst, parents across Boston began receiving letters Tuesday alerting them which school their children will attend this fall, the first notifications under a new student assignment system, school officials said.

The letters mark an annual rite in Boston that often brings elation to families who get one of their coveted choices and heartache to those who receive none of their choices — or one they were less enthused about. Disappointed families sometimes flee to the suburbs.

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But the new way of assigning students — replacing a system developed 25 years ago to comply with court-ordered desegregation — is potentially bringing more disappointment in many households. Fewer incoming kindergartners, for instance, received one of their top three choices.

According to preliminary data released by school officials, 73.07 percent of applicants for kindergarten this fall snagged one of their top three picks, compared to 75.5 percent the previous year. The rate of those receiving their number one pick — typically the school parents are most invested in — was worse, 47.3 percent compared to 48.8 percent the previous year.

Applicants for prekindergarten fared slightly better in securing one of their top three choices, 64 percent for this coming fall compared to 58 percent last year. School officials did not release data on the percentage of prekindergarten applicants receiving their number one choice.

A mix of emotions swept the West Roxbury library Tuesday as parents, one by one, stepped out of a room to call the School Department for the results instead of waiting for the letters. One mother said some parents would return with a smile; others were less enthused.

“Disappointed doesn’t even begin to describe how I feel,” said Cindy Lyons of West Roxbury, who recounted the tale.

Lyons said she failed to secure prekindergarten slots for her twin daughters. She and her husband then began a heart-wrenching discussion about whether to move out of Boston — a city they love and want to raise their children in. “I don’t know if I want to go through the student assignment process again,” she said. “Our lives have been held hostage by BPS since September when we began touring schools. Do we take this chaos out of our lives and move to another city?”

Charis Loveland, a Jamaica Plain mother, was on a conference call at work when she had a friend call the School Department for her to find out the news.

Her friend texted her back — the Philbrick Elementary in Roslindale, which was the family’s fifth or sixth choice.

But Loveland said, “I wouldn’t trade it for a winning lottery ticket. I feel the Philbrick is an excellent fit for my daughter mostly because of its small size. She needs to be a big fish in a small pond, and it’s only a half mile from our home. . . . We couldn’t be happier.”

Loveland and her husband never imagined that it would turn out this way. Convinced the new system would let them down, they spent the weekend scouting homes in Wayland.

Denise Snyder, senior director of welcome services for the school system, called the results “historic,” but added, “We still have room to improve.”

“This is a very big first step in making the process of registering for school better for families,” Snyder said.

The new system is quite different from the old one. Gone are three sprawling geographic-based assignment zones that offered families a choice of about two dozen schools.

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 goal is for more students to attend quality schools closer to home. The algorithm guarantees a minimum of six school choices, including at least four of medium or high quality, but many families in densely populated neighborhoods are receiving more than a dozen options.

The system is still in transition. The School Committee is letting families apply to schools an older sibling is attending under the old assignment system.

School officials said progress is being made toward shortening the distance students travel to school, noting that kindergartners next fall will travel an average of 0.9 miles, compared to 1.09 miles this year.

But it remains unclear if students are landing in better schools closer to home. Specialists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who helped create the system will conduct a neighborhood-by-neighborhood analysis.

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