A preschool seat in the Boston Public Schools often seems harder to come by than a winning Megabucks ticket, even for some of the city’s most politically connected residents.
City Councilor Michelle Wu struck out getting a seat for her 4-year-old son, Blaise, who was waitlisted earlier this year at the Sumner Elementary School in Roslindale. That is until this Monday, when she finally received a phone call from the school system that many families in her situation wait months for: A seat had opened up at the Sumner.
Shocked about her good fortune two weeks into the new school year, Wu yanked her son out of Sacred Heart School, scrambled to buy him new school uniforms, and brought him to the Sumner on Wednesday.
But once she got there, a very apologetic school staff informed her that he was not on its list and — making matters worse — the school system’s registration offices didn’t open until noon. After spending an hour at the school trying to sort through the mess, Wu left with her son — another victim of the chaotic Boston school registration system.
Wu took to Twitter to vent her frustrations, writing “special guest with me at City Hall today due to BPS limbo.”
“The most frustrating part was that I was afraid this would happen & asked several times on the phone with @BostonSchools on Monday if I could get any confirmation that Blaise was all set — an email? A number? Anything?” she wrote as she was heading to her weekly City Council meeting. No, she said she was told, just show up.
The @SumnerBPS staff was so welcoming & tried everything for over an hour to help us figure it out. But they work off the list from the Welcome Services office, which doesn’t open until noon on Wednesdays. We had to leave & had no other school for him to go back to.— Michelle Wu 吳弭 (@wutrain) September 18, 2019
The most frustrating part was that I was afraid this would happen & asked several times on the phone with @BostonSchools on Monday if I could get any confirmation that Blaise was all set—an email? A number? Anything?— Michelle Wu 吳弭 (@wutrain) September 18, 2019
“No,” I was told, “just show up on Wednesday!”
Wu’s experience highlights the kinds of frustrations families endure as they attempt to navigate the city’s Byzantine student assignment system, which allows families to choose from a customized list of schools based on their home address but offers no guarantee they will receive any of their picks. The situation is even more precarious for families vying for prekindergarten, where hundreds of children are waitlisted every year with no clear indication they will ever be assigned.
Families have often complained that they receive conflicting information from school registration sites, and the process is cumbersome, requiring families to sign up in person and produce an array of documents, from proof of residency to child immunization records.
The school system defended its communication practices with families.
“Boston Public Schools always strives to communicate clearly, consistently, and accurately with families,” Dan O’Brien, a school spokesman, said in a statement. “In this isolated instance, there was a human error that led to a miscommunication. Our staff responded swiftly to bring an immediate resolution to this issue.”
Wu, in an interview, said she and her husband are lucky they can make their schedules work when a snafu like Wednesday morning’s arises, but she added, “Many other families can’t have last-minute instability and that you can’t rely on what you are told in an enrollment system — that is pretty archaic.”
Her City Hall office Wednesday afternoon looked almost like a makeshift daycare with brightlycolored Mega Legos scattered across the floor as Blaise built a tower with them and later pulled out a stack of children’s books from a shelf to read. Earlier, he endured a City Council meeting, where he sat with Councilor Kim Janey and drew pictures. He was still wearing his new long-sleeved white polo shirt with “Charles Sumner Elementary School” printed on the front.
One floor below, Wu’s youngest son, Cass, 2, was in the actual City Hall daycare.
The registration snafu was short-lived. Wu received an e-mail from the Sumner’s principal before the City Council meeting began, informing her that the registration was complete and that Blaise could return to school.
Wu said she appreciated the effort everyone made, from the school secretary to the principal, to resolve the issue. The Sumner was her top choice: She and her husband like the sense of community there, and it’s a short walk from their Roslindale home.
Beliza Veras-Moriarty, a Boston school parent who served recently on the superintendent search committee, said she was not surprised by Wu’s mishap. Six years ago, she missed a single phone call from the school system informing her a slot had become available for her son at Boston Arts Academy, but the family was on vacation at the time while she also was juggling a newborn.
“I called back and the seat was taken away,” she said. “My son was heartbroken.”
In the end, it worked out for her son, who wanted to be an artist and graduated from Fenway High School with a full scholarship to MassArt. But Veras-Moriarty said the school system could do a better job of communicating and working with families. “I feel like they beat you down so you don’t say anything,” she said.
This wasn’t the first time Wu has turned to social media to raise concerns about the assignment system. She voiced disappointment this spring when Blaise did not get assigned to any of the eight or nine schools they applied to, noting “a system that creates winners & losers out of our families is one that’s failing our city as a whole.” She echoed similar concerns a year earlier when she unsuccessfully tried getting Blaise into a preschool program for 3-year-olds.
Other city councilors have also voiced concerns about the student assignment system. Council President Andrea Campbell in releasing her education plan in June called on the school system to make the registration centers more welcoming and to simplify the school assignment process while also increasing access to quality schools to families of all backgrounds.
“The central office has to do a much better job in meeting the needs of families,” Campbell said. “Good communication is essential. Parents have a lot going on.”