Getting In | Inside Boston's school assignment maze

An early education in the meaning of ‘no’

In school lottery, living close simply isn’t enough

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By Jenna Russell
Globe Staff / May 8, 2011

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Sawyer Bowen-Flynn is a lifelong resident of the North End, an expert navigator of its busy sidewalks, a connoisseur of its Italian bakeries. But one neighborhood landmark is this 4-year-old’s anchor: the red brick schoolhouse across from her front door.

Since she learned to talk, Sawyer has called the playground at the Eliot K-8 School “my park.’’ Last summer, when city streets grew steamy, she watered the flowers at the school to keep them from dying. When she kneels on her living room couch and looks out the windows, she sometimes spies her friends in their classrooms. “There’s Isabella!’’ she’ll exclaim, banging on the glass and waving.

But Sawyer was not assigned to the Eliot School for September.

In Boston, proximity to a school — even one just 33 child-size steps away — is no guarantee of admission, a fact that Sawyer’s case brings into extreme relief.

The system seems deeply regrettable to her parents, Jen and Doug Bowen-Flynn. But to Marie and Markel Wade of Dor chester, it is a blessing. They, too, live steps away from an elementary school. If school assignments were based on proximity, they would have no choice but to send their children to Winthrop Elementary, which has lower test scores and a less polished reputation.

Instead, because of a lottery that gives all students a chance to seek a seat at better-regarded schools, it is they who send their children to the school on Sawyer’s doorstep.

The lottery results have left the Bowen-Flynns shaken and in limbo, uncertain where they will send their daughter in the fall, and whether they will stay in the neighborhood, and the city, they love. It seems possible, stepping out of the vanilla-colored brick building they call home, and into the Eliot’s shadow, that no 4-year-old in Boston lives closer to an elementary school.

“It’s been such a part of her life, since she was born,’’ said Jen Bowen-Flynn, 38. “We knew about the lottery . . . but you can’t live this close without thinking you’ll go there.’’

For the Wades, the school assignment system has been an equally powerful force. Markel Wade Sr., 29, said he felt no connection to the school across from his house, and never considered sending his children there. Instead, he and his wife sought a place at the Eliot School, a 20- to 30-minute bus ride away in the North End, mainly because they were impressed with its energetic principal. Markel Jr., 10, is now a fourth-grader; 5-year-old Aajaylah attends pre-kindergarten.

“A lot of people choose a school for the convenience, but that’s not going to help the child,’’ said Wade. “I didn’t feel the Winthrop was a place where my kids would do big things.’’

The two vastly different outcomes turned on a computerized roll of the dice, a program that sorts through thousands of school requests and spits out assignments. Students who live within a mile of an elementary school receive some preference, but much of the sorting is random.

For North End families, the odds of keeping their children in the neighborhood have grown longer in recent years. Since the arrival of its principal, Traci Walker Griffith, in 2007, test scores at the Eliot have surged, driving more families to jockey for a place there. The new principal built partnerships with neighborhood institutions, invested in professional development for teachers and tutoring for students, and added the pre-kindergarten program for 4-year-olds.

As word of mouth about the Eliot spread, the wait list for admission grew, from fewer than 10 students in fall 2008 to more than 100 this spring. Only 32 pre-kindergarten seats were available for next year, and 70 aspiring pre-kindergarteners are now on the waiting list.

“We’re honored that so many families believe in what we’re doing, and we wish we could serve more of them,’’ said Griffith.

Three and a half miles away on the northern border of Dorchester, not far from bustling Dudley Street and Uphams Corner, the Wades have spent a decade in their three-bedroom apartment, in a small, yellow house with a chain-link fence out front. Like the Bowen-Flynns, they live on the second floor; like the North End family, they look out at a red brick school and playground.

The similarities end there. At the Winthrop School, roughly 30 percent of students scored at the proficient or advanced level on the 2010 MCAS exam. At the Eliot School, about 60 percent did. The Eliot is also more diverse — 54 percent low income and 30 percent white, versus 86 percent low income and 1 percent white at the Winthrop — a quality the Wades said they valued because it is more like the heterogeneous world their children will live in.

In last year’s school lottery, only 33 families listed the Winthrop as one of their top three choices for pre-kindergarten, and 22 of the 44 pre-kindergarten seats at the school were still unclaimed after the first round of assignments. The Eliot, by contrast, had 121 families list it in their top three, and with nearly four applicants for every seat, dozens went away disappointed.

The success of the Eliot is the most compelling reason for the city to give more families access to it, Jen and Doug Bowen-Flynn said.

The North End couple said they understand the roots of the lottery system, and support the goal of giving every child a chance to get into the best schools. But when schools don’t have room to accommodate their closest neighbors, they said, those families pay a steep price — and so do schools, which lose the benefits of having active, involved parents close by.

“If neighborhood kids go to neighborhood schools, the whole community feels pride,’’ said Doug Bowen-Flynn, 40, an English teacher at Medford High School. “Everyone shows up at the football game; everyone cleans up the playground. . . . The school is a focal point.’’

That neighborhood investment is exactly what Walter Henderson wants for the Winthrop School. The principal, now in his second year, hopes to bring about the kind of change that burnished the Eliot’s reputation. He began by walking the streets around the school, talking to families and trying to build a sense of ownership.

About 80 percent of students at the Winthrop live within a mile, compared with 56 percent at the Eliot.

“The more local people you can capture, the more they take care of the school, and it makes the neighborhood better,’’ Henderson said. “If we’re progressing into a powerful school, we want the families here to be part of that. . . . We do a great job nurturing children, but because we don’t yet have that cachet, that buzz, we don’t get the same draw.’’

At his invitation, volunteers from City Year painted inspiring quotes about education on walls around the school last month. “The Students at Winthrop Elementary Are College Bound,’’ reads a prominent new slogan, near images of Gandhi and President Obama.

But the change, if it comes to pass, will come too late to bring the Wades on board. Marie Wade, 28, a first-year kindergarten teacher at a public school in Mattapan, said she knows Henderson and is confident he will make a difference. After he was hired, she said, she felt torn; despite her husband’s objections, she was tempted to enroll her daughter at the Winthrop and help turn the school around.

But she knew she would be busy with her new, demanding job — and she knew change doesn’t happen overnight.

“As much as I wanted to be part of it,’’ she said, “I knew I wouldn’t have as much time to put in to make sure it went the way I wanted.’’

Wade and her husband met at South Boston High School, where Marie Wade, a native of Haiti who immigrated to the United States when she was 4, was valedictorian. She attended Bowdoin College on a scholarship.

Her previous work in the school system, for the family outreach program Countdown to Kindergarten, made her aware of the Eliot’s fledgling resurgence two years ago, just before the general public began to catch on. She moved her son there, via the lottery, in second grade, but last year, when it was time to apply for schools for her daughter, she worried about busing her to the North End, because the little girl has a history of seizures. She ranked another, nearby school, the Haynes Early Education Center in Roxbury, as her first choice. Aajaylah got into the Eliot, but not the Haynes.

The family’s experience has not been seamless — Markel Jr. was teased on the bus to the Eliot his first year — but they were impressed with how the principal handled the situation. The Wades’ enthusiasm convinced some of their neighborhood friends to consider the Eliot; as a result, another Dorchester 4-year-old, their goddaughter, will attend pre-kindergarten in the North End in September.

To Markel Wade Sr., the freedom to choose a school seems fair.

“No school is promised to anybody,’’ he said.

The Bowen-Flynns considered other neighborhoods when they moved to Boston from Seattle a dozen years ago, but they liked the close-knit, family feeling of the North End, where Jen’s grandparents had married, straight off the boat from Italy, a century ago. After their daughter was born, they became regulars at the Eliot School’s small, busy playground; they sometimes had pizza delivered there on summer nights for picnics.

Her parents said they have friends who started house-shopping in the suburbs as soon as they learned they did not get into the Eliot. The Bowen-Flynns badly want to stay in Boston, but said they are not willing to let their young daughter spend hours on a bus to a school across the city.

They declined to say what number they are on the Eliot’s waiting list, but believe they have a chance of getting in. Calls to wait-listed families tend to come late in the summer, though, or not until the fall, after many have been forced to make other plans.

They have yet to tell their daughter the bad news about the Eliot. Instead, since receiving their lottery results, they have collected close to 1,000 signatures on a petition that calls for the city to expand the Eliot School, and organized a phone campaign that resulted in more than 100 calls to the office of Mayor Thomas M. Menino, they said.

“This should be a huge concern for the mayor and superintendent, that people want to stay in the city and send their kids to public schools, and they’re feeling forced out,’’ said Jen Bowen-Flynn.

In an interview last month, Menino said he encourages frustrated North End families to consider other good schools, like Harvard/Kent Elementary in Charlestown.

“When I first became mayor, the Eliot wasn’t one of those chosen schools,’’ Menino said. “Now it is.’’

The Bowen-Flynns have occasionally crossed paths with Menino during his visits to the Eliot, and he has asked them whether they plan to send their daughter there.

“We’ve always said yes,’’ Doug Bowen-Flynn said. “Now we have to ask him: Will you let us?’’