BPS: Quality schools may not be local

The new school choice plan currently under development by the Boston Public School (BPS) system will focus on quality schools close to home, but during a meeting last week, members of the External Advisory Committee (EAC) did not address Mission Hill’s recent school shake-up.

Four of Mission Hill’s schools have moved or closed in the last two years, a controversial move that left Mission Hill with only one K-8 school. But the audience of 35 community members at the Aug. 28 meeting at the Tobin Community Center did not mention the controversy.

“In some neighborhoods, we don’t have quite enough schools,” BPS Superintendent Carol Johnson acknowledged during a roundtable interview with reporters last week. “[But] quality close to home may not necessarily mean neighborhood schools.”

The extensive data being analyzed for the plan development does not consider Mission Hill as a neighborhood unto itself, instead considering it part of Jamaica Plain and Roxbury.

Johnson said that should not impact school choice on the Hill, as the plan is based around the busing within the three zones, not neighborhoods. Mission Hill is located in the North Zone.

EAC members said that they were using a Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) map that did not show Mission Hill as a neighborhood. The BRA began including Mission Hill in its maps in 2010, though it has not made a complete switch.

One audience member asked about how schools will be considered of high-enough quality in the new system.

“This is the core question,” Johnson said at the Aug. 28 meeting. “Even as we talk about choices, we must consider what is our existing plan of action.”

The school choice process revision, expected to go into effect for the 2014-2015 school year, will emphasize “going to school close to home” instead of a greater choice from the entire pool of schools within a zone, as EAC members explained to community members. The bus zones are not expected to change.

The EAC is evaluating city and BPS data and advising BPS as BPS develops new school choice models before the models are presented to the community for feedback later this month. The EAC is comprised of 27 BPS parents, employees and BPS committee members.

The EAC is analyzing income, ethnicity, language and test score data sets and cross referencing them with school performance, growth and parent preference data to see what patterns emerge in K-8 BPS schools.

Some of the data presented to the community on Aug. 28 include: 43 percent of BPS students are Latino while 34 percent are black. In the East Zone only, however, 46 percent of students are black. In the North Zone, which includes Mission Hill, 55.2 percent are Latino, 19.3 percent are black, 12.9 percent are white, 10.4 percent are Asian and the remaining 2.2 percent are of other ethnicities.

In the East and West zones, about 50 percent of students live within their school’s walk zone—a mile for elementary schools, a mile-and-a-half for middle schools. In the North Zone, a full 60 percent live within that range.

All the data is publicly available at BostonSchoolChoice.org.

“At the heart of the question is the [student-to-school] matching process,” EAC member Israel Ruiz said at the meeting.

All that information will be used to analyze different models BPS is currently developing, to get as close to an “apples-to-apples” comparison as possible.

Trying to balance the needs of the almost 57,000 students in the BPS system, which includes English Language Learners and special needs and low-income students, with a quality education close to home is no easy feat, Johnson said during the round table.

“That’s the tension,” she said. “We’re spending a lot on transport but parents are interested in quality. We’re trying to figure out a new way to reconfigure this.”

BPS spends over $70 million a year on transportation.

“We’ve got to find some kind of compromise,” Johnson said. “In trying to make sure there are quality schools in every neighborhood, we have to make sure to fix the schools that don’t work.”

BPS is currently developing new school choice models, advised by the EAC. The models will be presented to the community starting later this month and will continue into October. The community will have three months to comment on the models.

EAC will choose a plan to recommend to BPS in November. The Boston School Committee will vote on the plan in December

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