The first day of school is often punctuated by photographs, hugs, and maiden voyages on the yellow buses. But for dozens of families across Boston, the opening of school Thursday will leave them with other memories: hours of sitting at registration sites, attempting to land a spot at one of the city’s 125 schools.
“It’s more of a waiting game at this point,” said Anavel Winslow, a Roxbury mother who took the day off as a hotel supervisor, describing a nearly five-month hunt to find the right prekindergarten program for her 4-year-old daughter.
In a city that offers families a choice instead of predetermined school assignments, registering has long been tedious and drawn out. While thousands of parents make a mad dash to sign up their children during the first registration round in the winter — snatching up spots in the most desirable schools — others apply months later or are still trying to compensate for not getting a seat in one of their cherished schools.
The registration crush leading up to the first day of classes and beyond has unfolded quietly each year, and yet the number of families involved is not insignificant: Approximately 2,700 students register in August and September, representing 20 percent of all school registrations.
The reasons for the late registrations vary widely, encompassing newcomers to the city, residents who didn’t know how the registration process works, or families seeking school transfers.
“I always feel bad for families in this situation,” said Latoya Gayle, executive director of Boston School Finder, a website that provides an array of information on public, private, and charter schools in the city. “The schools that are highly sought-after don’t have seats, so they are left with schools that other people didn’t choose.”
“The question is,” she said, “how do we increase quality across the system so families have better choices?”
Superintendent Brenda Cassellius, who kicked off her first school year in Boston by visiting such schools as Conley Elementary in Roslindale, has already signaled her desire to ease the registration process. In a first step last month, she launched pop-up registration sites at churches, community centers, and other venues that were open in the evenings and weekends.
In the coming months, Cassellius is working with staff to step up marketing campaigns during the start of school registration with an eye toward reaching families in communities that tend to sign up in later months.
Two researchers from Harvard and Northeastern universities raised alarms last year about inequities in Boston’s school assignment system. After examining late registrations, the researchers concluded “nearly half of black kindergartners miss the first registration deadline, a rate almost three times higher than their white peers, consigning them to the least preferred schools.”
“We find that late registration is highly stratified, disproportionately experienced by black and Hispanic children as well as children living in lower-income neighborhoods,” the authors, Kelley Fong and Sarah Faude, wrote.
That’s because the school system’s rolling registration deadlines benefit families who are in the know — giving them earlier assignments to high-performing schools — while those who are the least informed register for school closer to the start of a new year.
Meanwhile, school officials have expressed their own concerns about late registrations, particularly the domino effects on school bus performance. Late-registering students who qualify for bus service can require the school system to add stops on existing bus runs after the school year begins, causing drivers to readjust.
Over the past two days, the school system registered 157 students at four registration sites, completed 137 student transfers, and processed 141 student address changes.
At a registration site at school department headquarters in Dudley Square Thursday, dozens of parents crammed into a small room as they patiently waited, many for hours, to finalize their school selections. Most of the families spoke Spanish or other languages, and some families wondered what school choices they would be left with now that the school year had already begun.
Zach and Cartoon Rocco, who were there to register their 6-year-old son for first grade, just moved to Boston from Thailand on Aug. 30. They first tried registering him online a few months ago while they were abroad, but found out they couldn’t. Registration must be done in person, and families must submit an array of documents, including an original birth certificate, immunization records, two proofs of Boston residency, and, if necessary, documents proving a disability.
Complicating matters further, since the Roccos speak both English and Thai in their home, the online registration system would not even produce an official list of schools to choose from because their son first needed to take a test to gauge English fluency — a task the Roccos were aiming to complete Thursday.
“We would like him to go to school close to our home in Brighton,” said Zach Rocco, a teacher and a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts Boston, who felt confident his son was fluent in English.
Their suggestion to improve the system: Enable students overseas to take an English fluency test via Skype or at a US embassy.
Winslow, the Roxbury mother, said she originally registered her 4-year-old daughter in April and chose the Sumner Elementary School, where her other daughter attends the fifth grade. But a few weeks ago she found out the younger girl didn’t get in and had to go to a registration site and submit a new selection of schools.
On Tuesday, a staffer from Ellis Elementary in Roxbury called to welcome her daughter to prekindergarten, but the school has a late dismissal, that conflicts with her and her husband’s work schedule. She is now trying for a school near the home of her mother, who could help with after-school pickup.
She said she wishes the school system would allow families to request such transfers online, but she said she was told she could only do it in person. Having to jump on the registration process again so close to the new school year, she said, has been stressful.
“When I got the list of schools, there weren’t many to choose from,” she said. “I was familiar with a couple, but the rest I never heard of and one was in Mattapan.”