When you’re a member of the audience, you hope to outnumber the performers. An empty venue is disheartening for those on stage and there’s less energy in the room.
Boston Public Schools (BPS) took the stage on a rainy Tuesday night, holding its latest community meeting on improving school choice. But with fewer than two dozen people attending, speakers included – we barely made it.
Go ahead, you can yawn – “community meeting on improving school choice” is one boring string of words, and not an event destined to be standing room only. But I was wide-eyed, thinking of the immense task Mayor Thomas Menino created for the city in January, in promising to overhaul the lottery assignment process and begin fostering school communities for 57,000 students and their families across Boston by next year.
Half of the attendees on May 15 were paid to be there: employees of BPS, State Rep. Marty Walz, plus the mayor’s representative, and people from the offices of City Councilors Mike Ross and John Connolly.
That left just a smattering of parents and other interested parties who came to discuss how Boston might improve on the assignment lottery. It was a public meeting open to all, but the Copley Square Boston Public Library location targeted nearby neighborhoods. (Meetings have already been hosted in the downtown neighborhoods by BPS in the South End and Charlestown.)
A legacy of the painful years of desegregation and busing in the 1970s, the school assignment process has been modified several times since it was implemented in 1988. It’s stressful at best for families new to the system, and not always gives satisfactory results. Last June, Councilor Mike Ross pointed out in a press release that citywide, 76.7 percent of families received one of the school choices they applied for, while for Back Bay and Beacon Hill students the figure was 41.7 percent, “the lowest in the city.”
The current overhaul effort seeks to make families happier by keeping more kids closer to their neighborhood schools, and thus reduce transportation costs, which amount to nearly 10 percent of the city’s $830 million school budget.
Given that more than 700 participants in Boston have already attended these BPS dialogues since March, the process was almost quaint: A patient explanation of how the lottery works was followed by the audience contributing comments for the moderators to write down on large paper tablets. One line of questioning: what makes a quality education, what is equity, what do you want for your children, etc.
Then, in a different exercise, the queries began with, “Do you value school choice? What about choice is important to you?” These leading questions set off a crosscurrent by Shirley Kressel, co-founder of the Alliance of Boston Neighborhoods, and a suspicion of the whole process – 20-odd community meetings held by BPS around the city since March. Ms. Kressel is convinced that the dialogue is only lip service to citizen input and a cover for some predetermined plan.
But “it’s not a done deal,” said Maureen Harris, a former schoolteacher, who currently works in Central Administration for BPS. “We really do care about your voice.”
Mary Ann Crayton, another BPS administrator, strived to keep everyone on task, while trying to provide room for tangents to the agenda. Other than the engaged earnestness of the BPS employees at the meeting, there is a meticulousness to the process that seems to want to prove Ms. Harris’s point: A worksheet and exit survey were collected, and you can read summaries of all the meetings online to see what participants have been thinking.
Also online, take a look at a survey which hundreds of families have already completed. Like that survey, part of our exercise at the meeting was ordering a list of priorities for choosing a school: school hours that are convenient, academics that are strong, etc. One mother remarked that “the facility is in good shape” should be a given at any school – not a choice. You could surmise that some of Boston’s 125 public schools must not be inspiring settings in which to learn.
Another tangent contributed to the discussion by Kressel was how the city would fund all this improvement.
“We are awash in money,” she said, stating that waste is rampant and that “with a dull pencil” we could find all the money needed, even to build new schools. The “Improving School Choice” initiative alone has a commitment of $400,000 from the Boston Opportunity Agenda – which is public and private money – to be spent on the revamp.
Given that Back Bay and Beacon Hill, as well as the West End, Fenway, and Kenmore have not had neighborhood schools for years, Kressel’s pencil would be useful. In the Back Bay alone, there are between 300 and 400 children aged five to 14, and more than 500 younger kids whose families may inevitably consider leaving the city for more secure school options. A new school option downtown could relieve demand on the schools in Charlestown, the North End, South End, and Chinatown.
Meeting participants also touched on parent involvement and how it can help boost quality education in individual schools, one mother noting that food is a lure that works to increase attendance at any gathering, PTA or otherwise.
The tempting spread of coffee and snacks behind the BPS moderators didn’t draw that many participants to this meeting. Maybe not enough parents knew about it. And granted, because of the mayor's prioritizing of school choice improvements this year, there have been more meetings than ever.
On May 15 alone, John Connolly held a different school assignment meeting on Beacon Hill for constituents in what his office calls "a parallel process." But if more downtown families want public school as an option, the city needs to see that we care enough to fill some more seats when we're invited to the discussion.