BPS proposes new busing plans

Boston Public Schools (BPS) and its External Advisory Committee (EAC) have announced five possible plans for a new busing system that could offer up to 23 busing zones, likely starting in 2014.

The BPS overhaul also will introduce a new scoring system for schools aimed at giving parents a clearer choice more quickly, and  new special needs program distribution guidelines.

“Our focus is on quality, first and foremost, followed by greater access to quality schools,” BPS Superintendent Carol Johnson told a group of reporters during a round-table interview last week. “We’re on a mission to expand opportunity.”

At-large City Councilor John Connolly, head of the City Council’s Committee on Education, was expected to propose a separate school reform plan on Oct. 3, after the Gazette’s deadline.

The five plans currently under consideration were announced at a community meeting with Mayor Thomas Menino Sept. 24. The EAC will make its recommendation for a final plan to Johnson in November. Johnson will then make her recommendation to the BPS board in December.

The potential plans vary from a no-zone plan, where a child’s address would determine his or her primary school, to a 23-zone plan. Plans with six, nine and 11 busing zones are also being considered. The current BPS system uses three busing zones.

“We felt like our job was to reflect the variety of opinion. We felt like we needed to show all the options,” Johnson said. “We felt our models should reflect community input.”

In the proposed alternatives, Mission Hill is grouped either with Roxbury; with northern Jamaica Plain; or with Roxbury, the South End and South Boston.

The no-zone plan would have students attending schools that are, on average, less than half-a-mile from home, but BPS Capital Planner Carleton Jones noted that this would yield the “least diverse equity of access.”

BPS spokesperson Matthew Wilder said at the round-table interview that a one-mile walking distance buffer zone will remain in effect. That means that if a student lives within a one-mile radius of a school—its “walk zone”—that student can apply to that school, even if it is in another zone.

While the five draft alternatives still use an incorrect Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) map of Boston neighborhoods, Mission Hill has been added to that map after the Gazette noted the problem.

The current three-zone configuration means that students attend a school, on average, 1.48 miles from home. BPS stands to save up to 27 percent—and maybe more if higher priority is given to walk-zone students—in transportation costs by revising busing zones.

But “these [zone] lines are not in any way set in stone,” Wilder said, explaining that the proposed zone boundaries are adjustable.

Schools would also be rated in three different ways: by the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), by MCAS scores and by parental demand, to give parents a more complete view of each school.

The MCAS rating is used to display the school’s trends over the last two years, showing any drastic improvements or falling standards. The parental demand score would show how popular a choice with other parents the school is.

English-language learners and other special-needs students would be accommodated in each zone through the use of a separate plan that would ensure that adequate facilities and programs would be available. It would the same no matter which bus zone plan is chosen, though the current plan is not yet final.

That “overlay” system would create seven clusters. Each cluster’s population of special needs students would be analyzed to determine which and how many of each program would be required. That would allow programs to adapt more quickly to changing populations, Wilder said.

The plan also introduces a “feeder” system, where an elementary school would feed one middle and high school directly, letting parents know what school their kids can expect to attend.

There are five community meetings to discuss the proposals remaining, including one today at Suffolk University in Downtown Crossing. There are no scheduled meetings in Mission Hill.

“We want to encourage people to go to scheduled meetings, but we’re not opposed to adding more,” Wilder said.

Connolly and other elected officials announced an alternative to BPS’s plan on Wednesday, after the Gazette deadline. A preview provided to the Gazette has as main points: keeping students at their current schools, guaranteeing K-8 schools and kindergarten seats, and offering 16 magnet schools throughout the city. It also requires teacher and principal evaluations and more funding for “students in need.”

Following an August EAC meeting in Mission Hill, the Gazette reported that BPS bus zones would not change in the new busing plan, which is a “miscommunication,” Wilder said.

EAC members were in fact referring to the move this year of the Mission Hill K-8 to Jamaica Plain, which will require busing of Mission Hill-resident students to its new location, despite being in different zones, he said.

The plan’s website, complete with interactive maps of all proposed ideas, a list of all scheduled meetings and a community survey, is at bostonschoolchoice.org.

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