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The Boston Globe

Opinion

Carol R. Johnson

A bold school assignment plan

Our journey toward equity and excellence in our public schools is never-ending. This is a journey that demands bold, honest steps and a recognition that our mission is to serve all families well.

The school choice plan put forward by Mayor Menino’s External Advisory Committee on School Choice, and now under consideration by the Boston School Committee, is a groundbreaking transformation.

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Since 1989 our city has been divided into three sprawling student assignment zones: North, East, and West. Nearly 9 in 10 families ask for a school within 1 mile of where they live — but the system does not respond well to that request, nor does it balance access to our very best schools.

After a year of work this team of parents, students, and community members has approved a new plan that did not begin with school department officials. The idea came from members of the community.

This plan does away with zones and instead puts a priority on helping students attend quality schools close to home. It uses neighborhoods as a starting point and offers families the options closest to where they live. Where we have concerns about the quality of schools nearby, this plan offers additional choices a little farther away. It’s that simple.

The home-based plan finally connects the dots between choice and quality.

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The home-based plan finally connects the dots between choice and quality in a system where we are still working to improve our schools. It increases the chances a family will receive one of their top school choices. It ensures every incoming kindergarten child has quality schools from which to choose. Just as important, it strengthens our communities by cutting the average distance a child travels to school by 40 percent.

It is also self-correcting and will adapt as quality improves. Every time a school gets measurably better, predictability and equity will increase and the average distance students travel will decrease. This gives advocates of a fully neighborhood-based system something to cheer about: Once all our schools are high-quality, the home-based plan delivers a neighborhood school for every child.

Today, because of our zone-based assignment system, each yellow school bus picks up students from an area about 20 square miles wide to attend a single school. Under the home-based plan, the same bus would cover less than seven square miles.

We have moved aggressively to improve chronically underperforming schools and are asking the Legislature to let us make these changes and extend the day even more.

This recommendation is a renewed step on the journey that is consequential for our city’s future. It will not be the final step. We are challenged in this recommendation to reinvest where we have fallen short of quality and to give our parents access to the information that will help ensure equity, quality, and accountability. We are committed by this recommendation to address the persistent achievement gaps that undermine our district and our city’s progress.

Our graduation rate is at the highest level it has ever been. For English language learners the rate jumped nearly eight points this year. For African-American students we have raised it 10 points in five years. These recommendations demand that we do even more.

We welcome the opportunity to transform. Our journey forward goes well beyond student assignment and into the complex issue of raising the quality of services for our students with disabilities through inclusive opportunities, for English language learners through more dual-language programs, and for advanced learners through more challenging coursework. It demands we do more as a community around mixed-income housing and safety and bullying so students feel comfortable walking to school, in school, and on the bus.

We are directing our resources to significantly improve quality in schools across our city — in Mattapan and Dorchester, Roxbury and South Boston, Beacon Hill and Hyde Park. Many changes are already underway, including innovation status for schools such as the Trotter and the Blackstone, and planning for a school to serve downtown families.

The Boston School Committee is considering a plan that is a bold and welcome step forward. Now, we ask everyone with an interest in the next generation — parents, students, community leaders, nonprofit groups, businesses, faith-based institutions — to join us as we move from a decades-long debate about assignment boundaries toward a renewed focus on improving every classroom for every child.

Carol R. Johnson is the superintendent of Boston Public Schools.

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