Thursday, March 27, 2014

Some Not So Modest Proposals for the New Mayor

The Boston Public Schools mailed the results of the kindergarten lottery this week, and the next day, the school department sent out a ridiculous, self-congratulatory email touting the success of the new lottery. They claim that 73% of kindergarten families got one of their top three school choices.

The Grape wasn't among them. Neither were most of his friends. I've asked around a lot this week, and so far have managed to find one neighborhood family who got one of their top three picks (they got their second choice school).

Never mind that the school department's idea of "success" hinges heavily on families having three actual choices. (The new lottery has geographic zones. Based on your address, the computer generates a list of about a dozen schools from which you must pick at least three.)

Like so many friends, we put the two "good" schools in our geographic zone (for Boston readers, we chose Hurley and Quincy) as choices one and two, and for the third mandatory choice, we selected the next nearest elementary school, which is underperforming (Blackstone).

R. and I knew when we entered the Grape in the lottery that we wouldn't send him to the third school, if that's what he got. We were prepared to either move to the suburbs, or kick the can down the road, and send our summer boy back to preschool for another year, in the event the lottery assigned us our local underperforming school.

Some of my mom friends told me they would have taken the underperforming Blackstone school, for three reasons: it has a great principal, it is receiving an infusion of "turnaround funds," and it's in the neighborhood.

I salute these moms, who were ready to band together and roll up their sleeves, to show up in that school every day and work to turn it around. I think, given enough years and enough invested parents, the Blackstone school could be turned into one of the showplaces of the school system. But my view, and this is admittedly selfish, is that there's no way even the best, most hardworking people can turn that place into a top tier elementary school in time for the Grape to reap the benefits.

What I wasn't prepared for—and I've spoken to several moms in the same boat—was that the lottery system assigned the Grape, and many of his friends from the neighborhood, to underperforming schools in other neighborhoods.

I understand that not everyone gets into the "good" schools. There aren't enough seats. It's basic arithmetic.

But an underperforming school in another part of the city? That's a hard stop for even the most diehard supporters of public education in our acquaintance pool. 

This idiotic system drives too many families out of the city. Families who love the city, who want to stay and raise kids here. Families like ours.

There is no way on God's green earth that I would ever bus the Grape to another neighborhood to go to a bad school.

And I'm far from alone in thinking this way. City Councilwoman Ayanna Pressley tweeted a lot about the failure of busing earlier this winter. This article about how busing ultimately hurt the cause of integration is well worth reading.

And any attempt to discuss real change is always rife with platitudes about how all the schools should be great. Which would be nice, but this is America. And in America property taxes determine the resources of a school district.

R. and I came up with a few proposals that could be implemented in the near term.

1. Let's ditch the bulk of the lottery and have a city-wide lottery for seats in the half dozen (give or take)  top performing schools ONLY. This would keep the spirit of the laws that got us into this quagmire without putting thousands of kids on buses. Every kid gets their name in the hat for the top schools, thereby ensuring that every kid has an equal chance. No zones. No nonsense.  I know many parents in wealthy neighborhoods have been agitating for an all neighborhood schools model. I doubt that's politically viable. But why should the city go through the time and expense of holding a lottery for the underperforming schools?

2. Let's treat twins as a unit. I know a family who had one kindergartener assigned to a local school, while her twin sister is looking at an hour long bus ride, each way. This is crazy, and also, no kid should have an hour long one-way commute.

3. Every family who loses the lottery for seats in the handful of top performing schools get assigned to the nearest other public school. Kids go to school with their neighbors and friends, and the entire neighborhood feels invested in the school. This makes parent involvement easier for all parents, in all neighborhoods, because there's no commute to the school.

4. Stop busing the vast majority of students. Bus only the winners of the lottery for the top schools who live more than two miles away, and any students with physical handicaps. Everyone else walks. The money the city saves on busing could be put back into the schools in the poorest neighborhoods.

5. No more unfilled slots at top performing schools. A seat at the highly sought after Hurley went unfilled last year, according to the school's principal. Evidently a BPS official named Glenda was charged with filling it, and she didn't. I don't know the reason, and I imagine her job is awfully thankless. But still. This is nonsense. Why not publish the names of the parents/guardians who have kids on wait lists for sought after schools, in order of wait list number? Seems like an easy way to keep everyone honest.

6. Get a superintendent who knows Boston and who has some skin in this game. Why waste taxpayers' money on nationwide searches? On importing leaders who never stick around? Boston is a higher ed mecca. Surely there's some educated professional here who's up to the task of leading the school system. Preferably one with school aged children.

7. This last idea isn't PC, but: Let's have a conversation about why the school of last resort for kids with serious discipline problems is in one of the highest rent neighborhoods in the city. This seems like a misappropriation of resources. BPS could relocate that very dated, run down facility, build something much more modern and welcoming elsewhere, and make a fortune off the land the current building occupies.

What do you think, Mr. Mayor?

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