THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Another try set on school choice

Officials to include parents in process for any overhaul

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / April 13, 2011

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Boston school officials will present their vision tonight for a major overhaul of the city’s more than two-decade-old system of assigning students to schools, nearly two years after they abandoned a proposal amid public uproar.

The overhaul will attempt to simplify the process for parents to register their children for school and could also reduce the number of schools that parents can choose from — a measure the school district is exploring to save on busing costs.

The presentation at tonight’s School Committee meeting is not expected to offer any specific recommendations, but will simply lay out the 18-month process to develop recommendations.

In sharp contrast to the proposal of two years ago, school officials say they will consult a number of parents and other interested parties in public gatherings, starting next month, to create the recommendations. A lack of public involvement doomed the last proposal, school observers have said.

The changes should lead to a “simpler, more customer-friendly school choice system that actually makes sense for parents,’’ school officials said in a newsletter Monday.

“We need to do a better job of welcoming parents to the system,’’ said Michael Goar, deputy superintendent.

The city’s student assignment system has for years created angst among parents, who often find the process cumbersome and mystifying.

The city is divided into three sprawling assignment regions, enabling parents to pick from an array of schools for their children. Parents must register their children for school in person at a regional registration site and are required to submit about a half-dozen documents to prove residency.

But demand for some schools exceeds capacity, so admission is not guaranteed and is determined by a computerized algorithm, causing months of hand-wringing among parents.

The Globe is chronicling the experiences of 13 families this year as they navigate the assignment process across a city with schools of widely differing quality.

District officials intend to do the overhaul in two phases. The first set of recommendations would focus on easing school registration, starting with the next cycle in January.

Goar said the district intends to provide customer-service training to employees at registration sites and will look at possibly moving more of the registration process online, reducing the number of required documents, and investigate other issues parents might raise.

“We ask for a lot of documentation, and it’s causing major problems for parents,’’ Goar said.

The second series of recommendations would focus on switching the three assignment zones to a different configuration. Since the 1990s, the city has repeatedly tried replacing three assignment zones with several smaller ones or something akin to neighborhood schools, but has retreated amid intense public opposition.

The fault line is equity: Some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods have the lowest-performing schools, while more prosperous neighborhoods tend to have some of the highest-performing schools.

The last attempt to change the system bombed in 2009. Superintendent Carol R. Johnson surprised many parents and activists when she unveiled, in the middle of a budget presentation, a proposal to create five student assignment zones.

No public process led up to the development of that recommendation. A Globe analysis later found the plan would have created an inequitable distribution of low-performing schools, while school officials later revealed a lack of classroom seats and some specialized programs in some zones.

Any new configuration plan, Goar said, would aim to preserve diversity in the schools and some level of school choice, and to be enacted for the 2013-14 school year, pending School Committee approval.

With the city facing tight budgets for the next several years, reducing the district’s more than $70 million in transportation costs through a student assignment overhaul is imperative, said Samuel Tyler, president of the independent Boston Municipal Research Bureau.

“Rather than put money into gas, we could put it in classrooms,’’ Tyler said. “It will take a lot of effort to pull this off. It will be controversial.’’

Concern over a lack of high-quality schools persists, even as the district has undertaken a massive overhaul of low-performing schools.

“I don’t think we have the quality we need yet,’’ said Kim Janey, senior project director for the Boston school reform initiative at Massachusetts Advocates for Children, a Boston nonprofit. “At the end of day, we have to make sure all kids have access to a great education in the city regardless of what neighborhood they live in.’’

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com.