Thursday, May 31, 2012

Boston’s School Bussing Policy Unsustainable

Growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan I often felt like I had a hard time making and keeping friendships. My immigrant parents who worked more than full time had no close community ties and were not particularly social, so I was basically on my own when it came to finding a group of peers to “hang out” with. However, due to the relatively small size of the town and neighborhood school placement, by Junior High, even without much parental supervision I was quite familiar to the neighborhood kids and had developed relationships that, thanks to Facebook, continue to this day.

My children growing up in Boston, Massachusetts are having a very different childhood.

I try to make an effort to get to know the parents of any child my children take a shine to, but keeping up the relationship however requires driving the children to and from play-dates, because the way Boston Public Schools are set up, students are chosen from remote neighborhoods to attend school. I have at times found myself in despair because even after four children, I have hardly any personal contact with neighborhood parents, while my children do not know anyone from school within walking distance to play with, despite the large number of children living in our area.

Personal alienation is a profound side effect of Boston’s historical bussing program that was instituted as a result of the Civil Rights movement. Instead of automatically going to a nearby school, all students regardless of family income are entered in a lottery to try for their “top choice” schools. Failing that, students are assigned almost randomly to schools throughout the city. While students within walking distance of a school receive some priority status there is no guarantee. I cannot even imagine the waste in gasoline costs. Not only are poor kids getting bussed into wealthier areas for school but wealthier kids are being bussed into poorer neighborhoods. There are even programs such as METCO, where children are bussed out into the suburbs in the interest of diversity.

In a Dorchester Reporter article entitled “School policy casts our children adrift,” Gintautas Dumcius describes a recent Committee on Education hearing at Boston City Hall. It included several families disgruntled with the current system. They all live within blocks of each other, but their children go to different schools. “I don’t, frankly, know many of them,” said Michael Harrington, a Dorchester parent of two, with a tinge of sadness. Parents reported that they must take their children each morning to several different bus stops to be brought to various schools many miles away. The situation is so intensely irritating that parents who can afford it have been moving to the suburbs or putting their children in private schools.

Karen Johnson, who relocated her family from Pittsburgh to Boston, said if she had a chance to do it all over again, she would probably not have moved into the city. “I’m unhappy with the structure of the system and that children have to move [between schools] so often.”

“I think all of this testimony spoke to the need for massive reform,”

City Councillor At-Large John Connolly said after the five hour hearing. “…The current system leaves parents greatly frustrated and the Dorchester panel also spoke to the fact that it leaves neighbors not knowing each other or not able to bond together the way they’d like to.”

Mayor Thomas Menino has pledged to launch a “radically different” school placement system, with students being able to go to schools in their neighborhood, by next year.

There is a task force assigned to the duty of overhauling the school assignment policies.

My own personal experience with Boston Public Schools has actually been quite positive. Placement in Kindergarten for my youngest can be expected to take up to three years in Boston due to not enough available seats for willing students, but one wonderful new development, part of the School Readiness program, is the parent-child Playgroups opportunity for parents and children 1 and up. Another great thing for my family is the expansion of my children’s elementary school into a middle school, thus enabling my children to keep their friendships through eighth grade.

But the best policy of all for my children so far has been the Exam School policy of Boston Public Schools. Students on the Honor Roll in third and fourth grade are put into the “Advanced Work Program,” special class assignments likely to result in placement at one of three prestigious public prep schools. Boston Latin School, where my son now attends seventh grade, is actually the oldest public school in America, and was attended by the likes of Benjamin Franklin and other founders of the United States.

So, although the general state of Boston Public Schools remains perhaps not much more than a government-funded daycare center for working parents, for those students who want to learn, and are willing to work, there are very real opportunities, and I am deeply grateful for that.

Neighborhood organizations like “Thrive in 5” combine the efforts of several government and donor sponsored organizations to help unite isolated parents with available aid, but ultimately I think the best way to introduce families to one another is to re-institute neighborhood school assignments so that parents can organize themselves to get the funding they need for whatever they want to see happen locally.

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