Boston Public Schools officials formally released five possible plans for re-aligning assignment zones for elementary and middle-school students today, but promptly said three of the proposals - for 11 or 23 zones or pure neighborhood schools - were too extreme for the goals of ensuring quality education with a diverse student population.
An advisory committee will spend the next month analyzing the proposals and holding public meetings and then come up with a recommendation for action by the School Committee, which has been studying and rejecting zone changes for more than eight years now, mainly because past proposals have always left the city with one zone where all the schools were underperforming.
School Superintendent Carol Johnson and Deputy Superintendent Michael Goar said they're optimistic expanding the current three zones to six or nine would work this time in part because Boston schools are getting better. They pointed to a collection of 21 "high support" schools that are getting extra help from downtown to increase test scores, and said two Boston schools - the Orchard Gardens K-8 school and Burke High School - saw the greatest increase in MCAS scores of any schools in the state over the past two years.
Committee members and members of the public who spoke at the plans' unveiling at the Frederick Pilot School in Dorchester said they were disappointed the "framework" of criteria used by BPS to develop the maps did not include quality and that they need more data on the criteria that was used for specific schools so that they could judge whether the new zones would reduce stress on parents by giving them a higher chance of getting into a school they wanted, that all zones would have good schools for them to choose from and that schools would continue to reflect the diversity of the student body.
Goar and Johnson said quality is fundamental to everything they do. Mayor Thomas Menino, who attended the beginning of the session, added that by shrinking zones, students and parents would more easily form communities among themselves and with their local neighborhoods, further strengthening the schools. Johnson pointed to the roughly 1,900 students living in the Bowdoin/Geneva section of Dorchester, who now attend more than 100 public schools across the city.
One issue that will not really play into any decisions is any savings from reduced busing costs because, in fact, they may not be any. Goar acknowledged that if current students are grandfathered into their existing schools - something he said still has to be decided - transportation costs might actually go up for awhile because the city would essentially end up with two busing systems until those kids aged out of the system. Goar and Johnson added that some new classroom space might have to be added in zones with not enough capacity to meet their current needs.
Goar said that transportation savings from new zones - aside from the grandfathering issue - would range from 7% for the six-zone plant to 27% for the no-zone option. He said BPS currently spends $81 million a year on transportation. Close to $6 million of that is for state-mandated busing for charter and parochial-school students, which would not change, while a significant portion of the remainder is for special-needs students, who would continue to need busing.
He added that the 1.49 miles the average student has to traverse to and from school today would shrink to 1.29 miles under a six-zone system and 1.13 miles in a nine-zone system.
Goar said either eliminating zones altogether and returning to neighborhood schools would certainly make things more predictable for parents, but would cause problems with diversity. A similar issue would affect a plan for 23 zones, each with three or four schools in them. Goar also presented a plan for 11 zones, that would create a nearly all-white zone out of West Roxbury and a similarly pale zone in Charlestown and the North End, which he said was a non-starter.
In addition to whatever they do with these zones, Goar said officials would also develop "overlay" zones for special-education and English-learner students.
Any changes adopted by the School Committee would go into effect in the 2014-2015 school year.