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Op-Ed: On Ohrenberger School Choice Meeting and Student Assignment Reform

West Roxbury parents discussed diversity, neighborhood schools and what would be best for the city.

 

On Wednesday, 27 June, I went to the at the l regarding School Choice. It was impressive.

First, Lisa Gonsalves, who performed the analysis of all the data collected so far, gave the highlights of her findings from both through the on-line surveys and public meetings. I had hoped to ask questions then about the report, but after her presentation, she left.

After that, others reported on the data-collection process, reviewing what had happened at previous similar meetings, and we were given an overview of what some other school systems, such as San Francisco and Seattle, have done in similar situations. Then we broke into small groups for discussion.

One thing that struck me was that, though this was billed as an opportunity to collect data, we were constantly reminded that the timeline was constructed such that it would meet Mayor Menino’s goal of having a new assignment process, which, of course, favors neighborhood schools, by January 2013.

I also found it interesting that Peter Sloan, who reported on the school choice systems in other districts, was singled out for having a business background, as opposed to an educational one. This, somehow, was supposed to give more credence to his findings.

In my discussion group, the overwhelming concern was that neighborhood schools will lead to resegregation of the Boston Public Schools. Several of us spoke of our experiences with busing in the 1970s, and that to have students going to school with only students in their immediate neighborhood would be very wrong for the future of our city.

When we found out that a member of the EAC was listening in on our discussion, one group member asked her point-blank what she would recommend, and her answer was emphatically for neighborhood schools. She tried to say that not all the students on a street would be going to the same schools, but maybe to six different ones.

What she wouldn’t agree to was that it still kept children in the immediate vicinity of their homes, with little chance to meet students from across a larger section of the city. It got heated, when we pointed out that we want a broader range of diversity in our schools, which such an assignment process would discourage. At least one other group, I noticed, asked for a report on what impact on racial balance any new assignment system would have on the city.

We also worried that this process has been set up not so much to find out what parents want, but to justify a decision that has been made already, as evidenced by previous experiences of each of the group members, , and the report itself.

Each person in my group had a story about participating in a “Fact-finding” setting, only to have none of what he said taken into account. The survey asks questions that seem to stem from the assumption that parents want schools close to home, and leave little room to debate that, unless you go out of your way to express your doubts in the open responses.

But it was the report itself that appeared to signal all of this is really a way to bolster a foregone conclusion. All of the quotations provided regarding walk zone schools are strongly in favor of using proximity as a priority, but from what I saw at the meeting, I wonder if it accurately portrays the range of responses. I know that in my discussion group, we were all opposed to that, and I find it hard to believe that I ended up with the only people in the city to give voice to such an opinion.

Other aspects of the report also seem to “push” the idea. For example, the report states, accurately, “Participants from Charlestown, Downtown, parts of North Dorchester, the North End, East Boston (in forums) and West Roxbury tended to ask for the ability to choose a school in their neighborhood.” This makes it seem as though the demand for neighborhood schools is strong in communities across the city.

However, what the report does not say in the bulleted summary, though it gives the information in the form of a hard-to-read graph, is that in some of those listed areas, very few people actually took part in the discussion: while Charlestown and West Roxbury were well-represented, with 226 and 107 people, respectively, the North End was represented by 32 participants, Downtown by 20, East Boston by 17, and Roxbury/North Dorchester by only 14. These are small groups, not the groundswell such a highlighted finding would suggest. In reality, it seems the impetus comes from only two communities at either end of the city.

Another aspect of the report, which was not highlighted at the meeting, is that the demand for neighborhood schools is mostly favored by those who don’t actually have children in BPS. Among those who do, travel is less important than the quality of the school. Many people I spoke to at the meeting, both in the discussion group and one-on-one, expressed the concern that those students who are already in what we consider “quality schools” would be forced out of them to conform to the new, supposedly unproposed, assignment system. My group and at least one other prioritized grandfathering students so they wouldn’t have to change schools where they already had roots, connections, and relationships with classmates and teachers.

The facilitators in our group did a very good job of making sure they accurately expressed our feelings when they listed them on the easels, and Mary Ann Crayton, who introduced and closed the meeting, expressed a hope that this would be an entirely transparent process. I hope so. Given the way comments on fears of bringing back segregated schools multiplied exponentially once the topic was broached, I think there is much more concern than has been stated.

But, as one facilitator put it, “Is our mandate from the Mayor or these meetings?” That question went unanswered. They say that another analysis will be published at the end of July, incorporating what this latest round of meetings as revealed. I will be very interested to see if it reflects what I saw myself.

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