School zone plan to be reworked

Johnson cites lack of equal access

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / February 26, 2009
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Boston School Superintendent Carol R. Johnson will make changes to her school assignment proposal after an analysis revealed unequal opportunities for students in different parts of the city, she said last night.

The new map, which would replace the system's three sprawling school assignment zones with five smaller ones, would cause some areas with some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city to have a disproportionately large percentage of potentially failing schools simply because of the way the boundaries have been drawn.

Some of those same neighborhoods would also have more students than seats available at some grade levels.

"It's clear our current rezoning doesn't provide equal access," Johnson told the School Committee last night, just before her staff presented a statistical analysis of the proposed changes. "This is a work in progress. . . . Nothing is set in stone. This may change appreciatively."

In one of the more startling findings presented by her staff last night, a proposed geographic region spanning from the North End to Roxbury would lack 616 seats for students in grades 6 through 8 - the equivalent of an entire middle school. Another zone that covers most of Dorchester and all of South Boston would be short more than 100 seats in grades 7 and 8.

All the while, a newly created zone in East Boston and Charlestown would have more than 500 extra middle school seats.

District administrators offered no solution to address the disparity last night.

"I'm personally concerned about the 600-plus middle school students we don't have seats for," the Rev. Gregory Groover, the School Committee's chairman, said after the presentation.

Last night was the committee's first in-depth discussion of the proposal, coming on the same day the Globe reported that well over 50 percent of the schools in two zones that cover Roxbury and Dorchester have been designated for major overhauls by state education officials because of low scores on state standardized tests. That contrasts sharply with a proposed Allston/Brighton zone, where only one of six schools requires major restructuring.

Johnson offered no specifics about how the proposal might change. Groover and other School Committee members stressed the need to hold community forums before finalizing the proposal for a vote.

School leaders are considering changing the 20-year-old school assignment system as one way to remedy a more than $100 million budget shortfall for next year. Mayor Thomas M. Menino directed officials last year to redraw the map to help reduce the district's $76 million transportation budget by $10 million.

While it is not clear how much Johnson's plan would save, officials have said it could range between $5 million and $10 million. Other changes to the district's transportation plan, such as closing schools and reducing the number of special education students who require door-to-door busing, could save a few million dollars more.

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