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Boston Schools Doomed to Fail?

Are the Boston Public Schools about to improve? The odds are stacked against it happening.

Boston Schools Doomed to Fail? Boston Schools Doomed to Fail? Boston Schools Doomed to Fail? Boston Schools Doomed to Fail?

As a companion piece to Jack Kelly’s Feb. 13 column, I thought I’d provide a deeper analysis of the Boston Public School student assignment policy and the challenges the city’s schools face going forward.

Boston could end busing, today.

It was instated in 1974 because the public school system was deemed "unconstitutionally segregated” and students were bused to schools outside their neighborhoods to create a better balance. That was 34 years ago, when out of approximately 100,000 students, 51 percent were white. Today, we have just over 57,000 students, and 13 percent are white. Hispanic (41%), Black (36%) and Asian (9%) make up the majority of the rest of enrollment.

So, there’s no legal reason to continue busing.

Nor is there a logistical reason. Every child from kindergarten to eighth grade lives close enough to walk to a neighborhood school. And high school students walk or take public transportation, according to the BPS,

But there’s another problem: not all parents want to send their children to their neighborhood schools, because they think those schools aren’t as good as others in the system. So, they use the Boston student assignment process to pick schools outside their neighborhoods. If there are more kids who want to go to that school than there are spaces, there’s a lottery to see who “wins”.

Parents make their decisions by talking with neighbors, attending the annual Citywide Showcase of Schools, and interviewing schools’ teachers and principals. And, they look at standardized test results.

Test scores

It’s commonly thought some neighborhood schools are better than those in others, and that the difference is often based on race or income. But I don’t believe this is true. I did an analysis to see which students performed better on No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) tests and found that that the quality of schools didn’t vary much by neighborhood.

There are a handful of great schools in Boston, many mediocre schools, and a startling number of “bad” schools, spread out all over the city.

Bottom Line: Your child is just as likely to get the same quality of education at your neighborhood school as she would at one across town.

The tide may be turning

Using standard measurements of success (drop-out rates, 4-year graduation rates), it is true that most Boston public schools, if not flat-out failing, are certainly “not succeeding.”  But, there have been some encouraging signs of a turnaround.

Whereas just a couple years ago, only 26 percent of elementary/middle schools had at least half of their students living inside their walk-zones (nearby neighborhoods), today, 72 percent of elementary/middle schools meet this benchmark.

The city has been making a concerted effort, and parents are taking an increasingly-active role in their children’s educations. They choose their neighborhood schools because they have faith in them.

The problem is, some neighborhoods may be victims of their own successes.

The Eliot School, in the North End, has a 320 student enrollment, but there’s a waiting list of 400 students. At the Hurley School in the South End, which also has a waiting list, they’ve had an almost 250 percent increase in parents selecting it as their number one choice, during the past decade.

If every student who didn’t live in the walk-zones of those schools were forbidden entrance, my guess is that there still wouldn’t be enough room for all of the neighborhood children. My fear is that this sort of problem, a problem we’d be lucky to have, is only going to be more of an issue down the road.

'Radically' revamping the system

There is hope for the future. Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino earlier this year that he was putting City Councilor (and parent) John Connolly in charge of “radically” revamping the student assignment policy. The goal is to remake the entire school system, by eventually giving more children the opportunity to attend K-8 schools in their own neighborhoods.

The odds are stacked against the Mayor - perhaps that’s why he’s waited 19 years into his reign to propose it! If he succeeds, it will be his legacy. If he fails, it will be his Waterloo.

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