Sunday, April 7, 2013

0 Boston Public Schools New Assignment Plan

The problem with our education system is not that parents do not have a choice. The problem is that inequities continue to exist. -Patsy Mink

We live in the city where public education was created, a city which is considered to be one of the most advanced cities with some of the greatest minds available, and yet, inequities still exist in our public K-12 schools. These inequities harm not only our most vulnerable populations of children, those who are socio-economically challenged and students who may be English Language Learners (ELL) or have a disability (SWD), but all of our students because they all pay the price for these inequities. As the K-12 grades are the foundation for our students future success, it is important that we address the educational issues as quickly as possible. So how do we fix these disparities? 

According to Mayor Menino, Dr. Carol Johnson, and others, the first step to addressing the issues our schools face is by putting in place a new assignment policy which will allow students to go to school closer to home. This push for schools closer to home is what led to the Home-Based model as the proposed assignment model for Boston Public Schools (BPS). On Wednesday night, March 13, the Boston School Committee (BSC) held the last community hearing regarding the proposed assignment model followed by a regular BSC meeting which included a vote on the Home-Based model. 

While the hearing and school committee meeting were going on, a loud protest was taking place outside the building by members of several groups and unions. I only spent a few minutes outside listening to the speakers, but most of us in the Winter Chambers could hear the chants of "Say no to racism in education" and see the signs they pressed against the windows while circling the building!

As there were well over 20 people signed up to speak during the hearing, the BSC meeting rules dictated that the original 3 minutes per person be cut to 2 minutes per person. As you can imagine, the BSC Hearing went over the one-hour time allotted for it and into the regular BSC meeting, with a brief break from testimony to officially start the BSC meeting. BSC Chairman Michael O'Neill allowed the hearing testimony to be directly followed by the "public comment" period of the BSC meeting. 

There were 2 1/2 hours of intense testimony by parents, advocates, community members, and politicians. Many community members testified that the focus should be on the quality of our schools; walk-zone priority being kept or removed; capacity concerns under the new plan; the clear inequity of the new plan for our most at risk students; concerns about our SWD children; concerns about segregation; and, the validity and interpretation of the data used.

Dr. Muriel Leonard, former BPS speech pathologist, principal, deputy superintendent and chair of the task force to identify school quality indicators, testified that as in 2004, once again quality was the issue raised most during the school assignment process and that the recommendations then are primarily the same as those made by the task force in 2004 which were never fulfilled. Dr. Leonard went on to state that the BSC should ensure that all the recommendations of both the 2004 task force and the EAC should now be fulfilled and that she, like others, will not accept "quality later".

Councilor John Connolly was the only politician who testified that the walk-zone priority should be kept, whereas Councilors Tito Jackson and Charles Yancey testified that the walk-zone priority would enhance the inequality of the Home-Based plan and should be removed. All of the Councilors testified that the focus should be quality schools. 

Barbara Fields, former teacher and then Senior Equity Officer for BPS, as well as serving on the executive board of the Black Educators Alliance of Massachusetts (BEAM), testified regarding the work that must be done to address issues of resources and planning, that even with removal of the walk-zone priority the home-based plan still disadvantages students of color and socio-economically challenged students as many of those children live in areas of the city where the schools are designated as the lowest performing schools. Ms. Fields urged the BSC members to ensure that quality remain a focus even after a vote that she was sure would lead to the home-based plan being adopted.

As I had outlined the issues of the "BPS Tiers" vs. actual Massachusetts DESE MCAS level designations during previous testimony, I instead focused my own testimony on highlighting the following:
  • "Access" does not equal actual assignment, it only gives families the choice of certain schools - there is no guarantee your student will get a seat at one of your top choices;
  • Questions still remain regarding:
    • the validity of the data used;
    • the interpretation of said data;
    • policy recommendations and clarifications still needed;
    • issues pertaining to students with disabilities (many);
    • what happened to the requirement to have "academic improvement strategies" for each school being created and publicized prior to implementation of the plan.
  • That further capacity analysis needs to be done:
    • the data used did not factor in students who registered for Kindergarten in Rounds 2, 3, etc or students in grades 1-8, which leaves out a lot of students and though Kindergarten may be where the majority of students enter BPS, it is not the only grade level entry point for new students for many reasons.
    • What about grandfathering of students with disabilities in their current school if they are in a specialized programs that due to the new BPS SWD Overlay map causes their program to be moved to a different school (again)? Will BPS honor the grandfathering of those students at their current school and run concurrent programs in separate schools until the grandfathered students at a school are all out of 8th grade? (this could possibly apply to ELL students also!).
  • The "Quality improvement" promises are based partially on Mayor Menino's legislative proposals. There is no guarantee those proposals will pass at the state level or a guarantee by our city and state politicians or BPS of alternative funds/resources if the proposed legislation fails. This could lead to serious ramifications for the promised "quality improvements". I personally will not accept "well, we didn't get the money, so we will need to delay those improvements" as our political leadership and the district A) should have thought of this anyway, and B) I have been bringing this issue up since October through testimony at BSC, EAC and through articles and conversations - and still there is no alternate plan in place that has been publicized, so none of us should let this go.
When the last community member finished testifying, there was a presentation by the External Advisory Committee on School Assignment (EAC), represented by members Dean Hardin Coleman, EAC Co-Chair, and John Nucci. In addition to the EAC presentation, John McDonough, BPS CFO, acting as Interim Superintendent during Dr. Johnson's bereavement leave, read Dr. Johnson's memo which outlined her recommendation of the Home-Based model without the walk-zone priority. Dr. Johnson's recommendation leaves walk-zone access in place because that access is built-in to the Home-Based model. 

During and after the EAC presentation, the BSC members were able to ask questions about the Home-Based model, and the recommendations by the EAC and Dr. Johnson. I credit the BSC members for asking some great questions. 

John Barros asked that the district come up with a way to create the choice baskets for each family based on actual capacity of open seats at a school, factoring in the number of seats that are already guaranteed to siblings, instead of just based on proximity of the school and Tier designation. Mr. Barros example was of a school which he is given as a choice, but in reality, due to sibling grandfathering, there are actually only 5 open seats available, which ties in directly to scenarios and questions I laid out during my examination of the Quality Choice Plan (QCP) in October and which can now be asked regarding the home-based model. Mr. Barros suggested using the available seat information to then potentially add additional schools to families baskets to allow families a greater chance of obtaining a seat they want for their child.

Caludio Martinez, adding on to a recommendation of amendment to the "recommendation memo" made by Mr. Barros, illustrated the issue of the difference between the BPS "Tier" system and the MADESE "Level" designations. Mr. Martinez stated that while registering his child for school he was given the choice of the JFK school, according to BPS it is a Tier 2 (top 50% of schools), whereas MADESE Level has it listed as a Level 4 (turnaround status) school, which shows that clearly he was not given a true "high quality" school as part of his list.

While responding to Mr. Martinez's observation about BPS Tier vs. MADESE Levels, Dr. Kamalkant Chavda, Asst. Supt for Data & Accountability, stated that because the MADESE way of comparing schools statewide "were not appropriate and significantly different" which significantly penalizes BPS, that BPS decided to come up with a BPS specific metric for assessing the schools. One of the "nuts and bolts" ways of assessing the BPS schools (more favorably obviously) was "that our students with very high needs, students with disabilities and ELL students, Level 1, 2 and 3 were removed from that analysis, because again, by default, we are ranking schools, tier-ing schools and we want to make sure when we do that we remove some students with very high needs who are served in very specialized strands."* For the entire statement by Dr. Chavda on this, please see the video of the meeting and go to the fourth hour (04:26m). * MUCH more on this later as you can imagine! 

However, due to a correction by Alissa Ocasio, BPS Legal Advisor, the "friendly amendment" could not go forward attached to the EAC recommendations or without the Superintendent making her own recommendations first according to state law. Chairman O'Neill did note that Mr. Barros could bring the suggestions up under new businesses which would allow the BSC to ask for the Superintendent and BPS' input and recommendations on same, which is what ultimately ended up happening.

After all the testimony, questions and answers on Wednesday night, March 13, the Boston School Committee (BSC), by a vote of 6-1, approved the Home-Based school assignment plan without the walk-zone priority for Boston Public School (BPS) students. They also approved all of the recommended overlays and recommendations, inclusive of grandfathering of current students and their siblings. 

I fully support a new, less convoluted system for assigning our students to school. I also like close to home for children, especially younger students, and in fact have been lucky that except for my son in high school, my girls have been able to attend schools close to us. 

That said, I am extremely concerned that with this vote done, we will not see the same level of community pressure to ensure that good policies are put in place regarding this new plan and our schools quality levels. We need the community that came out, spoke up and pushed for the focus to be on quality first, even when they get busy with other things, to continue the fight for all of our students and their right to quality schools no matter where they live. Otherwise, I fear we will be back to just a few of us, like Peggy Weisenberg, Barbara Fields, John Mudd, Kim Janey, myself (who I am sure the BSC gets tired of hearing from) and a few new faces like Kenny Jervis, Meghan Doran of Boston Busing and Desegregation Project (BBDP) and a few Quest members continuing the pressure. 

What remains to be seen is whether we move Boston schools in a better direction, or will we now, as in 2004 when some of these same recommendations regarding quality were originally made, fail to follow-through?

I will keep updating you regarding the process and other BPS related issues, so I hope you will keep reading!

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


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