Less than a year ago, my husband and I enrolled our youngest child in the Boston public schools. This time around even though we knew what to expect we still felt the same acute uncertainty and anxiety we experienced the first time — the enrollment process has not improved over the last decade.
The same disjointed, complex enrollment processes that initially drove us to choose an alternative to the Boston public schools for our oldest remain in place. Meanwhile, outcomes for students of color have remained largely the same: Boston’s public high schools with the lowest expected graduation rates are 90 percent black and Latino; those with the highest expected graduation rates are 54 percent black and Latino. Of those who do graduate, questions remain about how well prepared they are for college, career, and beyond.
My family, with all our resources, still found that registering for school — while also advocating for our child with autism — was practically a full-time job. The process affects all families, but is worst for those historically underserved. I’ve been lucky to have the time, resources, and privilege to advocate for my children. Many families in Boston do not have that luxury. Thus, in a city with enormous resources, the capital of a state with the strongest public education system in the country, getting your kid into a high-quality, in-demand school is directly affected by what you know, and when you know it. A 2018 study in the Sociology of Education journal found nearly half of black kindergartners in Boston miss priority registration, a rate three times higher than their white peers. A majority of families registering late told researchers they didn’t know about school deadlines.
School enrollment shouldn’t demand “insider” knowledge, but with multiple deadlines, differing processes, and so many choices (there are 125 Boston public schools, including in-district charters) it’s hard for parents to know what school might be best for their children. Registration deadlines and processes are just part of the confusion. Officially, registration for Boston Public Schools — for the following school year — begins in early January for pre-kindergarten and grades 6, 7, and 9. Kindergarten (and any other grades) starts in February. There’s also pre-registration, which starts in mid-December. However, to get into one of the city’s highly-competitive exam schools, it’s already too late. The required Independent School Entrance Exam for the 2020-2021 school year has already been administered. Meanwhile, if you’re interested in charter schools, the lottery opened in October and doesn’t close until the end of February. If you want to get your child into the METCO program, its lottery closes January 3.
This is inherently inequitable. Every family in Boston should be able to make an informed decision about the school that’s best for their child. My frustrating, time-consuming experience with my middle child led me to become a parent advocate, and then the executive director of Boston School Finder, the online resource I wish I’d had to facilitate the enrollment process for my older children. As a parent-led, parent-informed organization, Boston School Finder offers an online database, searchable in eight languages, of more than 200 Boston schools, including public, charter, religious, and private institutions.
Brenda Cassellius, the fifth superintendent, including interims, of the Boston public schools in the last 10 years, has inherited a system rife with inequities. I’m encouraged by her efforts, from touring all 125 BPS schools in her first 100 days and exploring more equitable alternatives to the ISEE exam, to hiring a transportation consultant. As she drafts her strategic plan, reforming antiquated, opaque registration and enrollment processes must be a priority.
Investing in equitable access to schools sends a powerful message: Our children’s success matters. Handicapping their entry into that very education system with unnecessary bureaucracy undermines their success. Worse still, needlessly complicated enrollment only furthers decades-old racial divides in Boston’s education system.
We need to meet parents where they are. The families who make up the majority of our public schools, our black and Latino households, must be at the center to empower them to make the best educational decisions for their children. I think the superintendent’s initiative to run neighborhood pop-up registration on summer weekends is a great start, but we need to think bigger. In a city with more than enough resources and technical brainpower to build a better system, why are underserved families marginalized by our current system made to pay the price for our unwillingness to act? If we’re truly committed to addressing inequities, these families must be the nucleus of the solution.
All children deserve a high-quality education to propel them toward future success, but access to that isn’t guaranteed for all in Boston. When you build a system for those with privilege, everyone suffers. But if we transform the system to help those who understand its workings the least, everyone benefits — our children most of all.