Review of Community Meeting at Orchard Gardens

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Last night, BPS held a community meeting to present and get feedback on the latest proposals for student assignment. There was a good turnout, according to the Globe story on the meeting, around 250 people attended.

Carleton Jones and Tim Nicolette of BPS presented the plans and some analysis. The presentation was similar to this one from the January 23rd EAC meeting, but with less detail. They did not explain in detail how the two home-based plans would work.

After the presentation, BPS took questions which they specified should be clarifying questions on the plans since there would be time for comment after they took questions. Most of the questions were along the lines of "why don't you fix quality first, then address student assignment?" BPS gave the usual answer of the improvements that have already happened. There were also some questions about how students with disabilities would be assigned. I really didn't understand the answers to this, it's clearly fairly complicated now and will remain complicated with the new overlay. This isn't necessarily a bad thing as it's important that kids with different needs get the right services.

I asked if students who are assigned under the ELL and SWD overlays would have access to walk zone schools across zones. The BPS tool to see school choices by address doesn't show this. Carleton said that they haven't decided this yet. They would like to provide it but they're not sure if they'll be able to and still properly manage capacity. I think this is pretty important and should be included. For example, if you look at the Hurley school, it's up in a little rectangle at the north end of cluster C. Because of the shape of the cluster, students in the vast majority of what is now the Hurley's walk zone would not be able to attend if they are assigned through the ELL overlay. This includes families in the Villa Victoria and Cathedral housing projects which have large Spanish-speaking populations. This seems like a particularly large problem because the Hurley is a Spanish/English dual language school and half of its students must be native Spanish speakers. I'm sure there are countless other examples where not allowing walk zone access to cross lines will cut off ELL and SWD students from nearby programs that will meet their needs (which is the goal of the overlays).

People also asked for explanations of how the plans work. Carleton said that they were too complicated to explain in the time available but that they had computers set up outside the room where people could look up an address and see the choices available.

BPS then opened the meeting to comments. Most of the comments fell into the following categories:

  • BPS should address quality before changing student assignment.
  • People need a better explanation of how these plans work and what impact they will have before they can respond to them.
  • The EAC should delay their final vote which is currently scheduled for this Saturday.

Both city councilor Tito Jackson and State Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz spoke strongly about the need for people to understand the plans. Chang-Diaz particularly emphasized that it's not enough for people to be able to look up their address and see their schools. They need to be able to understand how their list of schools will be created and be able to explain the plans to their communities. I agree with this. The home-based plans are specifically designed to make sure that all students have a chance to be assigned to quality schools, but I don't think that was mentioned in the presentation. Also, the data on equity presented was very thin given how much information is available in the BPS report. Jackson also read a letter signed by 12 local elected officials asking the EAC to give the community more time to understand and respond to the plans.

After almost every speaker called for the EAC to give the community more time, EAC member Kelly Bates suggested that the committee vote immediately on whether to go forward on Saturday. EAC member Bob Gittens, who was leading the meeting, saw this as problematic since not all EAC members were present and they hadn't expected any official business to be conducted at the meeting. At the end of the meeting, Helen D├íjer agreed with this and noted that they did not have a quorum present. They said they will vote on this at their meeting tonight.

One thing I found striking is that, as far as I can remember, nobody spoke in favor of any of the plans. Most of the comments were not specifically against any of the plans, though. I think the biggest hurdle right now is that people don't understand the home-based plans and don't have enough information on how to evaluate the plans, particularly with regard to equity.

Given the fact that almost all speakers called for more time and the fact that there's really no support in the community for the plans without more information, I can't imagine that the EAC won't vote tonight to allow more time before their vote. Remember, you can attend the meeting at 73 Tremont St. at 6:00 tonight. The first hour will be dedicated to public comment.

Kim Janey of Mass. Advocates for Children tweeted a good summary of the meeting: powerful mtg where ppl across race/class lines & nghbds overwhelming called 4 quality, equity, analysis and delay.

 

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Comments

Thanks for the update. I have printed all the materials from all the meetings, all of the plans and I've read them all. I consider myself pretty literate and I cannot see how this new system would be any better than the one we have now. They need to find a city that has a system that works and mimic it instead of trying to create the wheel.

The more I think about the political dynamics of this process it is not really that surprising that most of the people who are motivated to go out on a cold night to a meeting would have those comments.

It seems like most of the people who care about this are current BPS parents, and since they are already at a school I would think for the most part the lotto does not really affect them very much, at least in regards to K1 and K2. Of course their primary motivation would be a ask for quality improvements now and pushing this off for later, their kids are already in school and thus that is what matters to them. Do you think it is universally known that sibling grandfathering is a part of every plan? After current parents know that I would think the calls for delay would be reduced.

As for why no one really supports the plans, it pretty much makes sense. The people who are really affected by this are people who are families of kids who are less then 4 and families with kids who are not even born yet. As I can attest to since I wanted to go to one of these two meetings and could not, it is pretty difficult for people with kids that age to be involved with politics. I am lucky to have a quiet 30 minutes to watch TV before I pass out at night.

Also, in the end of the day all these plans are talking about improving the chances of some hypothetical future kid going to a top 50% MCAS school by 5%, or having 8 possible schools rather then 20, or median number of kids who go to your school in your neighborhood increase from 3 to 4 or whatever. Not really the kind of stuff that is going to get people fired up to drop $50 bucks on a baby sitter so they can go to a meeting and support the plan.

It is kind of sad, but in the end of the day there is no constituency present to push to do something interesting and really fix this system, except for people who happen to find this stuff interesting like us. Any "community" process is going to end up being driven by the interests of the people who are here now, not the interests of the people who do not even exist yet or are currently learning how to walk.

My primary hope for the future at this point is that this falls apart and Menino will figure out that you cannot get fundamental change for people in the future by putting 30 people with concerns for the present in a room to figure things out.

Ian, those are excellent observations.

It's a shame that after a year of good work, the EAC and BPS didn't stop and think about how this step needed more time and effort to work. To explain the plans, to review the analysis. It's not hard to see how it happened, but it's unfortunate.

Also there's the question of whether this is where the bigger battle, over the commitment to quality and funding for the schools, can or should be fought. I guess we'll find out.

The big divide that I see here is that BPS wants us to think of quality and assignment as related issues that can be worked on in parallel, but parents aren't convinced that BPS has the issues prioritized correctly. And who can blame them/us? When it comes to choice, BPS is holding countless meetings, generating huge amounts of press coverage, and constantly asking for feedback. On quality, the community is being given assurances and some information about high support schools, weighted student funding, and other quality measures - all with significantly less fanfare and community engagement. When given the opportunity to give feedback, is it any surprise that parents want to discuss quality rather than assignment? Engagement on quality is what the community is starved for.

The truth is that there is no reason that we can't work on assignment and quality at the same time, as long was we bear in mind that 1) quality is the absolute priority overall, 2) the assignment process should do no harm in the short term, and 3) the assignment process should adapt to changes in school quality in the long term. When parents say, "quality first", it doesn't mean that quality has to be "done" before we can move on to assignment - after all, improving quality will never be done. It means that the community has to trust that quality is being addressed and that changing the assignment process won't get in the way of that. Right now BPS doesn't have that trust, and that's the biggest obstacle that I see when it comes to having a meaningful discussion about assignment.

I really thought that the remarks that Helen Dajer and (to a lesser extent) Carol Johnson made at the end of the meeting provided a lot of insight into the way that BPS and the EAC view these issues. Helen Dajer specifically said that quality will never be perfect, but that we can't let that stop us from addressing assignment forever. But making the secondary concern (assignment) appear to be a bigger deal than the primary concern (quality) is just a terrible way to appeal for community support.

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