Parent: Boston Public School Plans Would Leave Some Neighborhoods Without Quality Schools

A Jamaica Plain parent came away unimpressed with a recent public comment night. The Boston Public Schools have presented five ways to overhaul the district's student assignment system.

[Editor's note: The author of this column, John Radosta, is a Forest Hills resident with a child at West Roxbury's Ohrenberger School. The schools have presented plans ranging from "no zone" neighborhood schools to a 23-zone plan.]

Last Thursday, I was one of over two hundred people who came to the Ohrenberger School for a presentation by the Boston Public Schools on the School Assignment proposals.  The crowd was the largest of the BPS meetings that are being held over the course of two weeks, perhaps because it is the only meeting near to Roslindale and Jamaica Plain as well. In addition to a number of School Committee, External Advisory Committee members, and about half a dozen BPS principals, Representative Ed Coppinger attended, as well as City Councilors John Connolly and Matt O’Malley, who distributed information on their own plan for BPS, billed the “Quality Choice Plan.”

The structure of the evening was meant to be a short presentation of the several models proposed by BPS, then questions from the audience, followed by a “Gallery Walkthrough” where huge maps of the plans were on display, and representatives of BPS would explain them. Finally, attendees could join one of three smaller group discussions.

However, the plan quickly changed, though no one explained why. First we watched a recorded greeting from Superintendent Carol Johnson, who could not attend, and then a slide show about gains made by BPS over the past few years, narrated by Linda Chin. Finally, presenter Carleton Jones did an exhaustive review of all of the plans, to make sure that everyone knew about them. All of this took over an hour, though it is unlikely that anyone attending was unaware of the plans, given that the night was billed as an opportunity to give feedback on them. Mr. Jones, however, did speak to one of the most common questions that have arisen, that of “grandfathering” currently enrolled students in their own schools. Mr. Jones confirmed what the BPS had announced the night before, saying BPS had “Absolutely no desire to rip any students out of schools.” He said that according to BPS feedback, 94 percent percent of parents and guardians of currently enrolled students are happy with their schools, but also added that many parents would want to change their children’s schools once the plan is decided upon. I didn’t understand that discrepancy, but I didn’t get a chance to follow up on it.

At the conclusion of Mr. Jones’s presentation, Dr. Johnson did in fact appear. Now that she was there in person, one parent asked her to personally confirm that grandfathering would be a part of any plan. She refused to, though, citing the fact that in the end it isn’t her decision, but the School Committee’s and that she could only recommend it. This seemed to upset many parents, who called for something more concrete, but she was unable to give it. After Dr. Johnson finished, she introduced Councilor Connolly, who asked us to look through his “Quality Choice Plan” which BPS was also including on its website. He also acknowledged that his office was working with BPS to fix a mistake that left a portion of West Roxbury households unable to attend West Roxbury schools under any of the proposals.

At this point, we were directed to begin the Gallery Walk. A number of parents stood up to say that this was the time reserved for questions, but the moderators refused to take any, saying they wanted to be respectful of our time (though the meeting had started half an hour late). I joined the Gallery Walkthrough, hoping to talk about the BPS Accelerated Improvement plan, but though I stood at the poster for ten minutes, I could find no one to discuss it with me. I was hoping to get clarity about why the poster, which claims the BPS will use “what works” to improve schools, left out small classes with experienced teachers, two of the most powerful predictors of student achievement. In fact, the poster listed a plan to increase the number of seats at successful schools, which seems to be a way of flooding and overwhelming the success at those schools. I also wanted to know why the majority of steps seem to involve more bureaucracy than teaching. But I got no such clarity, and so went upstairs to the library, to one of the “small group” discussions.

By the time I got to the small group meeting, the moderators had already filled up several large pieces of paper with parent input. As I arrived, people were clamoring for more clarity about the Walk Zone procedures. Others wanted assurance on the grandfathering issue, and were even more dismayed to hear that no decision would be made until the plan was announced on Dec. 17. Some thought putting off the announcement until the end of the process would render any complaints moot. I asked why the question couldn’t be voted on in the meantime by the School Committee, since it was now being touted publicly. My comment was placed on a piece of paper as “a major suggestion,” whatever that means.

People were also very upset about the speed of the process: with five BPS proposals, plus the “Quality Choice Plan,” there is only a two-week window for discussion. A number of questions were about doubts that equity would be achieved through any of the plans, especially given that none of the presentation materials seem to have been translated into other languages, leaving a swath of the target populations unable to participate (There were translation services for the presentation at this and other meetings, but it was unclear whether translated materials had been available at other similar meetings).

The speed also took on more significance when we were asked to rate each of the plans. It was pointed out by a number of people that, since many relevant factors, such as grandfathering, sibling preference, clearly-defined walk zone boundaries and procedures, among others, were left unresolved, we couldn’t fairly judge any of the proposals. We were told, repeatedly, that the moderators heard our concerns, but could we still please vote. I saw very few, if any, fill out that form.

There are several groups of parents, including a coalition known as QUEST (Quality Education for Every Student) that are pushing the Boston Public Schools to slow down the time line on making a decision that will affect thousands of families for years to come. Their concerns include the fact that under any of the proposals, some neighborhoods will be left without any quality schools, and so efforts should be made, first, to improve the schools, instead of causing upheaval that will only result in less equity, especially for students living in poorer neighborhoods. There is an excellent review of the problems regarding equity and access to quality schools done by Harvard professor Meira Levinson and others.

There are only four meetings left for public comment. All city residents have a stake in the schools, and should take a few minutes to read over and comment on the six proposals at http://bostonschoolchoice.org/, and www.qualitychoiceplan.com, as well as Meira Levinson’s analysis at https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news-impact/2012/09/hgse-researchers-bps-plans-will-increase-inequity/. The meeting dates and places, taken from bostonschoolchoice.org, are:

Tuesday, Oct. 9 (6-8:30pm): Mildred Avenue K-8 School 5 Mildred Ave., Mattapan             (Haitian Creole, Spanish interpretation)

Thursday, Oct. 11 (6pm-8:30pm): Dever/McCormack School 325 Mt. Vernon St.,             Dorchester (Spanish interpretation)

Friday, Oct. 12 (6pm-8:30pm): Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center  38 Ash St.,             Boston (Mandarin, Cantonese, Spanish interpretation)

Saturday, Oct. 13 (10am-12:30pm): Charlestown High School 240 Medford St.,             Charlestown [Note: rescheduled date and time]


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