City tries anew to end school-placement frustrations

Even those with clout chagrined by lottery

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / April 16, 2010

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Among young families in West Roxbury, it was one of the most closely watched lotteries: Would the 3-year-old son of their neighborhood city councilor win entry into a public school pre-kindergarten program, particularly a coveted placement just down the street from his home?

After all, a host of other children in the city’s well-connected political families have received their top choices in the school lottery in the past, leading to a slew of conspiracy theories that the computer-generated algorithm was subject to political tinkering.

As it turned out, luck was not on the side of City Councilor John Tobin and his wife, Kate. Their son was wait-listed recently at all four of their choices, an ironic outcome for a politician who long advocated for greater leeway in allowing students to attend neighborhood schools.

Being locked out is a crushing event experienced by hundreds of parents across the city each year, prompting some to flee to the suburbs. For Tobin, the disappointment has added a personal twist fueling his crusade for changes in the city’s school-placement system.

“I’m just like everyone else tremendously disappointed by this system,’’ he said yesterday in a phone interview. “Kids in a neighborhood should get the first chance at their neighborhood school’s seats, and those left open could be filled by other students. Schools should just be part of a neighborhood as community centers and libraries.’’

Tobin, who penned a recent column about his family’s lottery loss for the West Roxbury Transcript, is stepping up his push as the district embarks on a new effort that could lead to a radical overhaul in the way the city has been assigning students to school for decades.

The new effort has two parts. First, civil rights lawyers and others are helping the district with a federal grant to find ways to change the student-assignment system without disenfranchising the city’s poorest children. Meanwhile, Superintendent Carol R. Johnson is working to raise the quality of education in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, calling it the Circle of Promise.

Under the current system, established to replace a court-created desegregation plan, the city is divided into three sprawling-geographic regions, allowing parents to choose from dozens of schools in their zone. For instance, it allows a student from a housing development in Roxbury — which has a disproportionate share of low-performing schools — to attend a high-quality school in West Roxbury, a city neighborhood with a suburban character.

The system has created stiff competition for the city’s top-performing schools, often leading to heartache and bitterness when families don’t get their top choices, especially in kindergarten.

Adding confusion at decision time is mystery over the complex computerized program that randomly assigns students. The formula, among other factors, gives weight to applicants who have a sibling at a school and allows half of seats at a school to go to applicants who live a certain distance away from the school.

Some families, Tobin said, question the lottery system’s fairness. During last fall’s mayoral race, a challenger to Mayor Thomas M. Menino and then city councilors Sam Yoon and Michael Flaherty noted in a debate that the trio had family members at top-choice schools.

“People think there are shenanigans that go on with the lottery system,’’ Tobin said. “When something is done behind closed doors, it raises eyebrows.’’

Matthew Wilder, a school department spokesman, defended the lottery system, saying that Tobin’s story shows “how blind the system is.’’ Even one of the mayor’s grandchildren didn’t get in a pre-kindergarten program in recent years.

Wilder noted, however, that about 80 percent of children who applied this year in the first round for a seat in pre-kindergarten, an optional city program with limited capacity, got one.

“We don’t feel this is an assignment issue, but a space issue,’’ Wilder said. “We don’t have enough room for everyone who wants a seat for their 4-year-old. We are very lucky in Boston we offer full-day kindergarten for 4-year-olds. Not a lot of cities can say that.’’

Tobin said every year around this time he has conversations “with people calling me up in tears’’ because they did not get into any of their chosen schools — whether for kindergarten or some other grade — prompting them to consider leaving the city for the suburbs. Tobin, who grew up in Mattapan and West Roxbury, said many of his friends have departed for Walpole.

Theresa Strang, a stay-at-home mother in West Roxbury, whose daughter was wait-listed this year for pre-kindergarten, is organizing a group of mothers to push for changes to the system.

“Everyone is talking about moving,’’ she said. “I know a woman who put her house on the market. . . . Why don’t they invest in neighborhoods and make them better?’’

Past attempts by the city to change the system have collapsed amid a tug-of-war over school access. Last year intense community opposition doomed a plan to break the city into five zones.

Tobin said he is not optimistic about seeing a return to more neighborhood schools. In some respects, he said, the city is a victim of its own success as education at many elementary schools has improved with the addition of such programs as full-day pre-kindergarten.

Still, he said, there are not enough high-quality schools.

“We live on Joyce Kilmer Road, and we can see the Joyce Kilmer School,’’ which was the family’s top choice and is one of the highest-performing schools in the city, Tobin said. “Explain the logic of why my son can’t go to that school. I will go to my grave not understanding that one.’’

James Vaznis can be reached at

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