Fixing the Wait List - Should BPS be More Like USAir?
One of the biggest problems parents have with the current student assignment process is wait lists. Many children get assigned to a school that's not their first choice and end up on one or more wait lists for higher choice schools. Even worse, many kindergarten children get no assignment and only get on wait lists. And wait lists often don't move until September when kids who are assigned to schools fail to show up for the first several days of school.
Another issue is the number of wait lists a child can be placed on. My memory is that BPS used to put children on an unlimited number of wait lists. If a kid got her 9th choice, she could be on the wait list for all eight of the schools she didn't get assigned to. Now BPS will only put a child on up to three wait lists. This causes parents to try to game an "un-gameable" system. The lottery algorithm in use since 2006 is supposed to encourage families to list schools in their true order of preference. But some families will put an under-chosen school in their top three just to increase their chances of at least getting a decent spot on a wait list.
BPS also used to limit the number of children on the wait list. The idea was not to have kids so far down wait lists that they have no chance to get in. Now a child will be placed on wait lists for their top three schools no matter how far down the list they are.
I don't understand the reasons behind these changes. I'd like to see a return to an unlimited number of wait lists but with a reasonable limit on how many kids would be on the list for each school.
The good news is that BPS is doing a couple of things already to try to improve things. One change is to allow families of kindergarten children to ask to be administratively assigned. This means that if the child doesn't get into any of his or her choices, BPS will assign the child to the closest school in the child's zone with an available seat. This means families won't have to go back to a family resource center if they don't receive an assignment. I haven't seen any official data on this, but I heard that an overwhelming majority of families are checking the box.
BPS hasn't given a lot of detail on the other initiative they're undertaking, but my understanding is that they're planning to call families who have been assigned to schools to confirm their child's attendance. BPS already sends letters to families each spring asking them to confirm whether or not their child will attend school in the fall. However, because of the nature of the district's population, BPS does not remove a child from a school's roster just because the letter isn't returned. Instead, they only remove children if parents confirm that the child will not be attending. By contacting parents by phone, the district may be able to remove some of those children before school starts and move the wait lists sooner.
In order to really address this problem, BPS has to improve quality and make sure schools are located where the students are. But in the short term there are ways to significantly reduce the problem.
I wrote about one change that could be made in a previous post. If charters and district schools were assigned through a single process, fewer students would be on waiting lists when they had already chosen a preferred school.
Another way that BPS could help families would be to implement the most loathed practice of a fairly unpopular industry: overbooking. Airlines routinely overbook. As passengers, we're only aware of it when we get bumped or when we hear them offering hundreds of dollars in vouchers to passengers willing to take another flight. In those cases it may cost the airlines, but in general they make a lot more money by overbooking and filling more seats.
Airlines do fairly sophisticated forecasts based on historical cancelation and no-show rates for various classes of service. BPS could do the same thing by looking at what percentage of kids usually show up at each school. If siblings show up at a higher rate (and I suspect they do), that could be factored in. BPS could then conservatively overbook each kindergarten class. If a class started the year with one or two extra kids, it wouldn't be the end of the world. In fact, it would probably be less disruptive than the musical chairs that takes place in September now when some kids don't show and others start at one school then move to another when they get in off the wait list.
The impact of this would be much larger than it may appear. For example, let's assume that the popular Thomas M. Menino Elementary has two kindergarten classes and each is overbooked by two kids. We would expect that to reduce each school's wait list by four kids. However, the impact could actually be much greater. There may be kids assigned to the Menino who put the Raymond L. Flynn K-8 as their first choice. By also overbooking the Flynn, two of those kids may be assigned to the Flynn, freeing up two more spaces for kids who would otherwise be on the Menino wait list. At the same time there may be kids who are on the wait for both the Menino and the Kevin H. White Early Learning Center who put the White ELC as their first choice. The White ELC also overbooks, so those kids get assigned to the White.
The end result is that the Menino has a much smaller waiting list. More importantly, far fewer parents are waiting until the second week of September to get an assignment. And there would be a lot less movement after school starts which would benefit both families and schools.
What else could be done to reduce this problem? Make your suggestions in the comments.