Discussion with BPS COO Kim Rice on Student Assignment Logistics


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Way back in September Kim Rice, Chief Operating Officer of BPS, sat down with me to discuss issues around student assignment. Here are some of the items we talked about.

I raised the issue of wait lists and asked if BPS overbooks schools to allow for the fact that many students don't show in September. Kim said that they do overbook certain schools that have historically had large numbers of no-shows. I suspect that they could be more aggressive, but this is tricky as anyone who's been bumped off a flight can attest to.

I also asked about the change that was made a few years ago to how wait lists are managed. In the past, children could be assigned to an unlimited number of wait lists, but the number of children on each list was limited. This seemed like a reasonable system, but was changed to allow unlimited children on each wait list but limit each child to no more than three. This causes some parents to try to game what is supposed to be an un-gameable system. If a family chooses three very popular schools as their top choices and don't receive a good lottery number, their child could end up far down on all three lists and not on the list at all for less popular schools. So some families choose a less popular school as one of their top three choices just to ensure that they will be on at least one waiting list with a good chance of getting a seat. This flies in the face of the assignment algorithm that was adopted several years ago and was designed to let families rank schools using their true preference and not worry about strategizing.

Kim said she thought the changes were about trying to keep limited people on the lists by not allowing kids to be on unlimited lists. She wasn't aware that some parents were considering the three wait list limit when making their choices and said she would look into possible changes. 

I was also curious about how BPS reaches out to families to find out if their children will be attending a BPS school. BPS sends a letter out to parents after they receive their assignments asking them to inform them of whether their child will attend his or her assigned school. However, many parents do not return the form so BPS only removes children from a school's roll if the parents confirm that the child will not attend a BPS school. Kim told me that BPS makes calls over the summer to try to reach families who do not return the letter. They call again in the fall if students do not report to school. If a student hasn't shown up after eight school days, BPS will remove the student from the roll unless they have heard from the parent that the child will attend.

I raised the idea of merging the charter and district assignment systems. Kim said that this has been discussed, but she's concerned about the transportation implications. Since all charters are citywide and BPS is required to provide transportation to charters within Boston, promoting them to parents as part of the assignment system could increase BPS transportation costs. She mentioned that currently BPS gives out literature about charters at the BPS Welcome Centers (formerly called Family Resource Centers) but only for schools in the same zone as the center. The mayor has asked the legislature to allow charters in Boston to be regional instead of citywide. Kim said they would reconsider if this passed.

She also said that there is some coordination between BPS and charters on determining which students might attend charters instead of BPS schools. BPS gets enrollment lists from charters and checks those for kids who have enrolled for BPS. They prioritize calling those families to try to determine if their children will attend BPS.

I also brought up the possibility for parents to be able to monitor their place on the wait list and add or remove their child from wait lists on line. I pointed out that BPS already has a way for parents to sign up for an account and pre-register their children on-line. This could fairly easily be extended to allow parents to view and manage wait lists. This is not currently in the works, but Kim was interested in the idea.

I asked Kim about walk zone access for children who are being assigned through the overlays for English-language learners (ELL) and students with disabilities (SWD). This was a question that was left unanswered after the EAC recommendations last spring, and I was concerned that some students wouldn't be able to attend nearby schools that are just over one of the zone lines for the overlay. Kim clarified how this will work. The overlays will add school options for ELL and SWD students over and above the schools they could choose under the new assignment plan. Only schools with "program seats" from the overlay will be added to students' choice lists. This means that an ELL student would only receive additional school options that have an ELL program appropriate for that student. The same is true for SWD students. These students can still choose any school from the regular assignment plan regardless of whether the school has program seats, as they can now.

I raised the idea of giving a preference to students who are grandfathered into the school they were assigned to under the old plan to transfer to a school that is available under the new plan. This would reduce the number of children traveling to schools that are now outside their choice list. Kim liked the idea but wasn't sure if there would be space for the students to transfer into. I pointed out that in later grades there is often space so it might have an impact.

I suggested that BPS lengthen the first assignment round. Currently, the first round ends in early February and assignment notices go out in mid-March. Many families miss the deadline and register in the second round after seats in the most highly-sought schools are already gone. Families applying after the first round are disproportionately low-income and of color. Making the first round longer would reduce the number that miss the deadline. The challenge is that many students need to be tested for English proficiency to determine their needs before they can choose schools. I still feel like the timeline could be reduced, but it will mean doing that testing in a fairly short timeline. Since some charters and most private schools also send acceptance letters in mid-March it is unlikely that BPS would push that back.

Kim promised transparency as BPS implements the new plan. BPS will release a document detailing all the rules used to assign students, which would go a long way towards gaining people's trust in the system. Kim was very forthcoming and generous with her time, especially at a very busy time of year. I'll try to get an update in the spring once BPS has run through the new assignment system for the first time.

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