Mayor Menino and the Boston school department deserve credit for presenting five realistic options for reforming the school assignment process, including a straightforward alternative of placing elementary and middle school students in schools closest to their homes. Now, as the debate gets underway in earnest, every option should be closely considered — including those that mark the most sweeping changes from the dysfunctional current system, which buses children across three wide geographic zones at great expense and to little educational purpose.
Already, some observers are opting for a more modest change that would reduce the size of the zones, but maintain the basic structure of the current system. It’s too early for that kind of split-the-difference mindset, which could squander the best hope in a generation for improvement in the Boston schools. Rather, all stakeholders should concentrate on devising an assignment plan that satisfies the key aims of education reform:
■ Giving parents and other members of the community a deeper sense of involvement in the schools.
■ Providing the greatest impetus for improving low-performing schools.
■ Giving families the assurance of knowing where their children will go to school, long before the deadlines for private and parochial applications.
■ Offering enough options that no child gets stuck in a chronically underperforming school.
In addition to neighborhood schools, the proposed alternatives give parents the choice of schools within six, nine, 11, and 23 zones. The larger the number of zones, the fewer the schools to choose from and the smaller the travel distance. In the 23-zone model, for example, parents would generally choose from among three or four schools averaging about 0.8 miles from home. Under the six-zone plan, the choice of schools would roughly triple and the travel distance double.
In the coming weeks, there will be a lot of pressure on a school advisory committee appointed by the mayor. Already, Menino has signaled that he values compromise over any attempt to “bomb’’ the system. That could be viewed as a heavy thumb on the scale against the neighborhood option or the 23-zone plan. Deputy Superintendent Michael Goar found fault with the 11-zone plan because schools in some white areas of West Roxbury and Charlestown would lack diversity — despite the fact that there is no desegregation order in place and nearly 9 out of 10 students in the system are racial minorities.
The city’s leaders shouldn’t shy away from the overriding goal of a new assignment plan: strong schools in every neighborhood reinforced by afterschool offerings through libraries, community centers, and nonprofit groups. And the fewer children who require yellow buses to get to school, the more money becomes available for quality classrooms and afterschool programs.
The most common argument against neighborhood schools is that families in poor and minority neighborhoods will lack access to better-performing schools in wealthier areas. When drawing its maps, the school department made strong efforts to reduce the likelihood that families would be trapped exclusively in zones with weaker schools. Still, there is no escaping the fact that about a third of the city’s 93 elementary and middle schools are in dire need of improvement. But it is possible to redeem such schools in as little time as a year or two. The old image of a poorly funded school in a neglected neighborhood no longer holds.
In a single academic year, students at the UP Academy in-district charter school (the former Gavin School in South Boston) doubled their MCAS proficiency in math. The Trotter school in Roxbury and Blackstone school in the South End were among the weakest in the state in 2010. Now they are making impressive strides in math as well.
Despite the evidence that poor schools can be turned around quickly, no child should be forced to attend a subpar school for lack of alternatives. But there are many ways to provide such flexibility, including through charter schools, Metco, magnet schools, and giving kids in neighborhoods with weak schools the right to attend better ones nearby.
Seattle faced similar challenges a few years ago. Its leaders chose a bold assignment plan that emphasizes neighborhood schools. That decision provided predictability for parents, proximity to neighborhood supports for children, cost savings, and higher enrollment — precisely what Boston needs. And Seattle managed to do it while remaining flexible. Students who require special services that are unavailable at nearby schools are assigned elsewhere. And parents who are unhappy with their assignment can seek available seats in other schools through an open enrollment process.
Boston is capable of a similar approach. Superintendent Carol Johnson has characterized a new assignment plan as one of the most “important and impactful’’ opportunities in the city’s history. She will be right if the plan leads to increased enrollment and the transformation of failed schools. But Bostonians will never know what’s possible if city officials settle for making minor adjustments to the current map.