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Putting a face on Boston school reassignment proposals

Two years ago, when our daughter received her K1 assignment at Mather Elementary School in Dorchester, my husband and I heaved a huge sigh of relief. We agonized over whether we were making the right decision in trusting Boston Public Schools to educate our children when so many others seemed to be fleeing the system, but when the Mather appeared on our assignment letter the skies seemed to clear. It wasn’t our closest school, but we’d been impressed by the principal and faculty, and we were happy to learn that several families we knew had also gained spots there for their children. This good fortune extended beyond a seat for our daughter: her younger brother would receive sibling preference at the Mather when he entered the lottery, virtually ensuring him a place there as well.

So we dove into life at the Mather, and, with the people we met there, began building a community around it. Our children became friends, our families became friends, and in the past two years we've made huge progress at our school. The year before our daughter entered K1, membership in the Mather Parent Council numbered three, including the principal. This year 33 parents attended our first Parent Council meeting, and over 60 have signed up to volunteer at the school.

In the last year, the council raised more than $25,000 for our school, launched a school newsletter, hosted teacher appreciation breakfasts, and held both a winter carnival and spring festival, among other fundraising events. We lobbied the Boston School Committee for funding for our English Language Learners program, won grants from outside organizations and formed partnerships with local nonprofits for school improvement initiatives, and held off-site meetings on weekends to strategize our long-term goals for the Mather. These include our plans for the school's upcoming 375th anniversary: The Mather is the oldest public elementary school in the nation, and we want to celebrate the inspiring community that has continued to thrive there for nearly four centuries.

It is this concept of community that seems entirely absent from the reassignment proposals, some version of which is expected to go into effect in 2014. Big efforts have been made in modeling how the lottery affects an individual child and how to even the odds that a child from an underprivileged neighborhood and background will have a chance at a good school. However, none of these models take communities into account. Rather than observing what we've done to support our school and working to imitate it elsewhere as a means of raising quality throughout the system, BPS seems poised to undermine our efforts by dividing the community we've worked so hard to create and shutting many current families out of our school.


This is true for our family — and many others — because our son is eligible for K1 the year the system plans to revamp the assignment zones, and almost every current proposal excludes us from the Mather's zone. The school system has stated that it will grandfather currently enrolled students at their schools when the zones change, but it has not extended this exception to younger siblings. So our son, who's been to every school fundraiser, attended every meeting with us, who already knows the names of his principal and future K1 teacher at the Mather, won't be given the chance to enroll there.


To us, this feels like nothing less than a betrayal; We entered the system under one set of rules, and now the system is reneging on that commitment. For the Mather it spells disaster: the community that we've striven to create will be fractured as more and more parents leave the system and the city for good.

All this makes no sense for our family, but it's also poor policy for the system as a whole. Allowing sibling grandfathering would let current families act as a skeleton around which to mold the changes reassignment would bring, providing some stability for schools rather than effectively throwing all the cards into the air at the same time.

It would also contribute to predictability, one of BPS's stated goals for the reassignment proposals, keeping current families invested in their schools rather than changing the rules on us midstream. Perhaps most importantly, it would restore our faith that BPS doesn't view our children as statistics that it can can move around on virtual maps, but rather as members of the communities that sustain us in our city and in our schools.


Anna Ross is a poet-in-residence at Stonehill College. Her collection of poetry, "If a Storm,'' will be released in 2013.