Sunday, March 3, 2013

0 More Answers Needed Regarding Boston School Assignment Proposal

As a frequent attendee at Boston School Committee (BSC) meetings, I am pretty good at figuring out what issues or topics are likely to cause reams of questions and discussion from the BSC members. A new assignment proposal for Boston seemed guaranteed to lead to quite a few questions and discussion, after all, it is a huge shift for the district and has the potential to either become one part of the solution or, potentially create more issues within our school system and a massive flight from the city by families able to do so. Somehow though, despite a deadline dictated primarily by politics instead of the educational welfare of all of our Boston children, there was a lack of questions by the BSC members that was amazing to me. 

Case in point, the February 2010 proposal to create the Roslindale K-8 Pathway, the model for the proposed Middle School Feeder overlay map, which was simply an admissions policy change to the student assignment plan only affecting six elementary schools (roughly 1700 students), garnered many more questions, requests for data and clarification of same, and much more discussion by the school committee members than has been seen so far regarding the current proposal before the BSC, which will impact all of our schools and 57,000+ students

This is extremely disheartening, especially since there were no questions by BSC members regarding the validity of the data used throughout the process! The data utilized to create and assess the proposals is in question by many advocates and groups because the data used to assess all of the models is based only on the 2012 Round 1 K2 registration data for new students (no siblings in the system yet) which is 1,659 out of the 4,030 students who applied for a K2 seat and the choice popularity data for 2012-2013. 

Throughout the model and neighborhood analysis report presented to the External Advisory Committee on School Assignment (EAC) on February 20, 2013 are consistent statements regarding the limitations of the data:

  • Sample used for analysis does not fully reflect current makeup of BPS student population. 
  • When broken down, data does not necessarily reflect an entire neighborhoods access to quality.
Additional Limitations
  • The study population is not necessarily representative of all BPS elementary school students.  Specifically, it under-represents Black students and students eligible for free and reduced lunch compared to the overall BPS enrollment.
  • Because of the low representation of students from specific neighborhoods in the study population, the data may not be reliable in analyzing access to quality.

The above is only a sampling of the "disclaimers" regarding the data utilized throughout this process. Similar disclaimers have been made throughout this process in reports and verbally at EAC and community meetings. By pointing out the limitations of the data used, there is an implied admission that the conclusions made during this process do not account for the majority of our BPS students. 

Maybe I am the only one disturbed by this, but I doubt it and suspect that the majority of people, like myself, are probably shocked that when proposing such a drastic assignment change so few of our students were factored into the discussions, many of whom will clearly be impacted, both by assignment as well as programmatic shifts (for ELL and SWD students especially), even if not new incoming K2 students. 

This will probably lead to questioning why anyone would agree to put a plan in place without further data, analysis and impact projections for our current students and the schools. The fact that the BSC members did not ask questions regarding the above is beyond concerning, because any new plan will impact all of our current elementary/K-8 students who the BSC is currently accountable for and yet it seems the focus has only been on future potential students. There is no doubt we need to make projections for future students new to the system, but why are we dismissing the impact of this new plan on current students and their siblings?

While writing this article, I have come up with several more questions, as follows:

  • Why didn't the EAC ask that an analysis of the proposal be prepared which details the projected impact on the schools and our students currently in grades K2-8, inclusive of those potentially entering during those grades?
  • Though I understand why BPS picked the sub-set of K2 students for choice projections, as current students and their siblings are promised grandfathering, doesn't that lead to many of the same questions I outlined in my series regarding the Quality Choice Plan (QCP), especially regarding the actual ability to fulfill the projected capacity demand (and the promised capacity expansion ideas) for those new students along with the siblings who are grandfathered? (I still foresee many upset parents who are promised close to home seats only to find that a K2 seat is still not available at the school closest to them until grandfathering of current students' siblings is done in a few years.) 
  • With regard to the ELL and SWD overlays, one of my questions at an EAC meeting that was never answered specific to SWD strands which were just shifted two years ago is concerning too:  though we have a map breaking the city into clusters (again), BPS has not provided any clear data or even a draft proposed site list for the cluster-based programs specifically for students with "high incidence" disabilities. This could lead to BPS breaking its promise made to families two years ago that the sub-separate strand shifts would be the last time parents would have to go through such a huge change for their students. At that time, BPS claimed that it wanted to ensure predictability for parents of SWD, especially those for whom change can be even more traumatic than other students. My clients have children in those strands, and though the goal of special education is to have the student who needs a highly specialized program enter a more inclusive program when they have met the goals necessary to do so, because progress for many of those students is minimal compared to the student in regular education (think instead of 1 years progress in 1 years time, some of our most at-risk students are only making 3-6 months of progress instead), some of those same students will potentially be moved out of the school many of them just settled into yet again!
The questions that were asked by the BSC members seemed to primarily focus on the Middle School Feeders (capacity/choice), expansion of K-8 schools, timeline of the reports recommended by EAC, cost savings, clarifying that the ELL/SWD maps are cluster-based, and parent compacting. 

The questions/requests made by BSC members that were more in line with my expectations came from Claudio Martinez who asked for specifics regarding the algorithm that will be used to assign students, John Barros who asked that the information regarding the racial equity analysis be presented as part of one of the upcoming hearings, and Michael O'Neill who asked about the EAC's recommendation to keep a walk-zone priority as part of the plan as well as the cost impact specifically around transportation of grandfathered siblings along with a few other specific recommendations. 

Of note is that the day after the BSC meeting there was a City Council Hearing regarding Councilor Frank Baker's proposal of a hybrid school committee, which could lead to three seats on the BSC becoming elected positions instead of Mayoral appointment.

Dr. Johnson, regarding the EAC recommendations stated:
"There is a sense of an accomplishment with this recommendation, and rightly so – but within the recommendation is a serious warning: That simply implementing its elements and claiming victory will not be enough. As the EAC has told us, we must immediately craft a set of interventions and direct our resources to significantly improve quality in schools across our great city..."

Many of the "watch-dogs", both individuals and groups, will continue to pay close attention to whether the recommendations are followed as promised by Dr. Johnson statement:
"Whether the School Committee votes to accept the EAC recommendation around school choice or not, we believe that many of the quality improvements we have discussed over the last several months must move forward. We are taking the necessary steps now to begin planning for and implementing changes in schools that are not performing well for our students."
Interestingly enough, it was community members who asked the hard questions or urged the BSC to make changes to the plan prior to voting on it. 

Almost every community member who testified urged the BSC to take their time as two community meetings, one of which will be held immediately prior to the March 13th 6:00 p.m. BSC meeting, with the vote scheduled for that same meeting, is not enough time

Quite a bit of the community testimony focused on quality and the walk-zone priority issues. Slide 12 of the presentation by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) clearly illustrates the inequity of access to Tier 1 & 2 schools across the city if the walk-zone priority is retained in the Home-Based A model as recommended by the EAC

Peggy Weisenberg, a civil rights lawyer and long time BSC attendee, testified that the BSC should eliminate the walk-zone as it only further guarantees that geographically advantaged families will retain higher access to quality schools over families who have no Tier 1 & 2 schools in their walk-zone (as evidenced in my last article's example of 132 Seaver St). In her testimony, "Recommendations for Fairness and Equity", Ms. Weisenberg states that the BSC should "Eliminate structural inequities in the lottery-based assignment system which include:
  •     a place-bias that uses a BPS-constructed walk zone unfairly (i) to add tier 1 school choices to BPS-constructed market baskets for geographically advantaged families; (ii) to advertise through BPS-web-based tool the place-bias, giving the old realtor’s/employer’s wink to non-walk zone families -“DO NOT APPLY HERE”; and then (iii) to assign seats using place-bias to control competition for seats at a given tier 1 school, triply disadvantaging those at a less preferably home base; 
  •  .  a time-bias that unduly advantages families entering the lottery early and disadvantages other families, including later registrants and newcomers to our City"
If you would like the full copy of Ms. Weisenberg's testimony, please contact me at

Patricia Kinsella and Megan Wolf, of the citywide parent group Quest (Quality for Every Student), also brought up the inequality that will continue if the walk-zone priority is kept in place. Quest has prepared a position paper which may help you further understand the concerns and some of the issues Quest foresees.

Additional testimony was given by advocate Fran Smith requesting that prior to adopting the proposal, the BSC ask that a Racial Impact Assessment be performed. 

Josh Weiss, BPS parent and someone I count on to help me understand the BPS raw data, testified that more data and analysis is needed regarding the Middle School Feeders as there was none presented throughout the process and that the proposal to convert 6 additional elementary schools into K-8 models, which would eliminate seats at the lower grade levels, is concerning as BPS is currently scrambling to find seats for incoming Kindergarten students for 2013

I testified in an attempt to urge the BSC that until a concrete quality metric is finally adopted in December 2014, a clear statement that the BPS Tier system is NOT the same as the DESE Level designations needs to be in place, as I am sure there will be much confusion otherwise. I also pointed out, as in my prior article, that BPS' "Tier" levels seem to almost always be one level above the DESE Level designation and contain Student Growth Percentil (SGP), which BPS has consistently been told should never be used to assess schools or staff. In addition, I asked that when planning for the MSF they please put in place clear assignment procedures as I have spent the past month answering questions pertaining to the Roslindale Pathway assignment into the Irving via phone and emails from countless parents!

John Mudd and Kim Janey, of Mass Advocates for Children (MAC), testified regarding concerns about equity access, clear data analysis regarding the impact on all the students, focusing on quality improvements and a clear concrete list of promises by BPS.

If you would like to see the BSC meeting please check out the video.

Absent from this very important meeting were the faces of our elected Boston officials or their representatives, with the exception of Martha Pierce and Rebecca Frisch for Mayor Menino, which is extremely interesting given it is campaign season and school assignment is a hot topic in Boston. 

If you take nothing else from this article, please remember these things:
  1. The data utilized is not representative of the entire BPS population and may under-represent minority and socio-economically challenged populations;
  2. According to the BPS disclaimers throughout the process, the data may not be reliable in analyzing access to quality; and,
  3. Our BSC members are not asking enough questions about the assignment plan and process.
Once again, I urge you, if you have anything to say about the assignment proposal: 

Attend the public hearing this Thursday, March 7th at 6:00 p.m. which will be held at English High School. If possible, also attend and testify at the March 13th hearing and school committee meeting! 

Call and email the Boston School Committee (BSC) members, Mayor Menino and our elected officials with your feedback prior to the Boston School Committee voting to pass this proposal. A complete list of email addresses for the people listed above is available here.

You can contact me at and follow me on twitter @bpsnightmare.


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