May 6, 2004

Roxbury residents contemplate taskforce’s school assign maps

Jeremy Schwab

Last week, Roxbury residents got their first look at eight models of what the city’s school assignment zones may look like come the fall of 2005.

The gathering at the Charles Street AME Church was the second in a series of forums to be held across the city over the next month to gather public input on the proposed maps.

Following the forums, the mayorally-appointed Student Assignment Review Task Force, which came up with the maps, will make recommendations to the School Committee. The committee will then decide on a plan.

The maps would divide Boston into between one and twelve zones. Models that would split the city into four or fewer zones received mixed reviews from participants at the Roxbury gathering, while a proposal to create twelve zones was panned as moving the city toward segregation.

One model which garnered support from some in the crowd was a three zone model which would spread out the district’s underperforming elementary schools more evenly among the zones.

“A limitation of the current [three zone] plan is 15 of the 19 schools under state review or corrective action are in the East Zone,” noted Kim Janey of Massachusetts Advocates for Children. The East Zone has the highest proportion of black and Latino students.

A proposed four-zone model would further disperse the underperforming schools.

But in that model, the zone with the highest proportion of black and Latino students would contain 289 too few middle school seats. Meanwhile, the other three zones would enjoy between 570 and 972 extra middle school seats.

Currently, the East and West zones, which have the highest proportions of black and Latino students, contain 278 and 1,182 extra middle school seats respectively, while the north zone has 15 too few.

In the proposed models, black and Latino students nearly always make up the majority of the population in each zone. However, zones with higher proportions of blacks and Latinos generally have fewer extra seats, and in a handful of cases too few seats.

The disparities are likely due to the status of Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan as the only neighborhoods in the city with more students than seats available. Many school buildings in those neighborhoods were sold or destroyed following court-ordered desegregation in the 1970s.

To deal with the handful of proposed zones with shortages of seats, the school department would simply create more places in the schools in those zones, said a mayoral policy officer.

“You’d add another class in a school,” said the policy officer, Meredith Weenick, who has been working with the task force on the school assignment process.

Task force members note that smaller zones would give students a better chance of getting into one of their top school choices, because they would have fewer schools to choose from.

“Simply redrawing lines to create balance between available seats and student enrollments would not in and of itself create greater access to the schools that are thought to be the better schools,” said Task Force co-Chairman Ted Landsmark. “The task force has tried in these models to create better access for more parents to those schools which are viewed as among the best in the city by trying to spread those schools out among the zones.”

Indeed, most of the zones in the proposed models would enjoy roughly the same number of advanced work classes, high- and low-MCAS performing schools and underperforming schools.

Some of the models call for more K-8 schools and would allow students from across the city to apply to these K-8 schools. Under each model, high schools would remain citywide.

During public input meetings on the current assignment plan held across the city earlier this year, residents expressed an overwhelming demand for higher quality schools, regardless of how zones are drawn.

Given that quality is the main concern of city residents, some participants at last week’s meeting in Roxbury suggested there should first be a public process to examine that issue before the city looks to remake school zones.

“Everyone’s main concern, and I heard it in Roxbury and West Roxbury, is quality,” said Wendy Kelly, who has two children in the Boston public schools. “Why are we discussing this before discussing quality?”

In recent years, city officials have expressed concern over the rising cost of busing and parents from predominantly white neighborhoods such as West Roxbury have been clamoring for a return to a system where students attend school closer to home.

Observers say these factors are what led Mayor Menino, who has expressed support for smaller zones, and the school department to initiate the current process.

However, it is unclear how much money, if any, the city will save in the short run if it changes to smaller zones, given the cost of changing more schools to K-8 and other expenses related to re-zoning.

When asked whether a shift to smaller zones would save the city money, school department Chief Operating Officer Michael Contempasis could not say whether there would be immediate savings.

“In the long term, probably,” he said. “Under the status quo, there would be no short term and no long term savings.”


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