BPS’s ‘Showcase’ features choices on schools – and parental anxiety

Parents Daryl and Natasha Best of Hyde Park at the BPS school showcase in December. Max Larkin/WBUR photo

Starting this week, thousands of families started to tell Boston Public Schools where they want their children to enroll next fall. But the process can be daunting and exclusive — and in the end, the choice doesn’t belong to families alone.

BPS assigns students to schools based on an algorithm that uses a number of factors  — from the location of their homes to the enrollment of their siblings. It also relies on a random lottery to place students in the most sought-after seats.

In 2014, the district said the new system was designed to give people across Boston “access to quality schools closer to home.” But studies show that it hasn’t always achieved the hoped-for result, and that the system seems to place low-income and African-American families at a disadvantage.

Perhaps to get an edge, many families throw themselves into the process early. For example, some families attend BPS’s annual “school showcase,” held this year on Dec. 14 in the gymnasium of Boston Latin Academy in Dorchester.

The priority period

Hundreds of parents and grandparents braved rain and cold to attend the noisy Saturday event. They roamed from booth to booth, meeting school leaders and comparing programs — all in hopes of finding at least one school that seemed to be a fit for their children.

If there was a nervous crackle in the air, it was with good reason, said Hyde Park parent Daryl Best, noting that young children’s futures are at stake. He and his wife, Natacha, are trying to find the right schools for their 4- and 5-year-olds.

“Whatever decisions we make now [will] set them up for success or failure later,” Best said. “We want to make the best decision.”

And there are real academic disparities between schools in Boston. While the city’s exam schools boast national reputations for academic excellence, state officials have labeled 8 of the 125 BPS schools “in need of broad/comprehensive support” from state overseers due mainly to low test scores. For the same reason, 34 BPS schools are getting “focused/targeted support” for the same reason.

Both teachers and parents said that state classifications, or even single metrics, probably wouldn’t determine their final choices.

Former teacher Tanna Preston did consult BPS’s system of four school-quality “tiers,” based on a wider array of measures of their effectiveness, to guide her path through the room. But Preston was also open to schools with less stellar pedigrees, including the Mattahunt Elementary in Mattapan. That school has recently reopened after lagging academic performance prompted the Boston School Committee to close it in 2016.
Most other parents at the showcase shared Preston’s confidence that good work is taking place throughout BPS.

At the booth for the Henry Grew Elementary School, near her home in Hyde Park, Natacha Best said she was shopping based mainly on her personal values — like a hope for outdoor playtime and a focus on social-emotional learning.

So while the Grew is one of those eight schools under the closest state monitoring, the Bests walked out considering it anyway — because it seemed to meet their particular needs. (MCAS scores are important, Daryl said, but they’re “not the be-all and end-all.”)

The Bests planned to work around their busy schedules to plan visits to four schools in time to submit their choices by the district’s priority-registration deadline of Jan. 31. They — and other parents at the showcase — are savvy and determined navigators of this system.

Making a list and submitting it during this priority period is the best way to guarantee that families can get what they want. But they know the system is still a crapshoot.

According to district officials, only 55 percent of families to apply for a kindergarten seat during the priority-registration period get a seat in the school they ranked first, while 85 percent get one of their first three choices.

And that is only part of the story. There are many parents who don’t make it to events like the showcase, and thousands of families that fail to register on time -- meaning they enter the lottery late, and face even longer odds of a good outcome.

Sarah Faude co-wrote an article about late-registering families in 2018, and did her doctoral dissertation on BPS’s “welcome centers.” She said her years of research in the district revealed no evidence that families that miss events like the showcase, or the registration deadlines, do so for a lack of care or engagement.

“[They’re] doing the best they can, with the information that they have — which might be only be provided by the district last-minute, in English,” Faude said. “And that’s not what our city is. And then we’re surprised when people don’t equally access [events like the school showcase].”

Faude and her co-author, Kelley Fong, found that many families that register late do so for reasons beyond their control: if they’ve recently moved or experienced a change of custody. Others, Faude said, are held back by limitations of language or packed work schedules.

But in the end, inequities in inputs — for example, with about half of black families of kindergartners applying late — can contribute to inequalities in outcomes, with students of color clustered in highly segregated, lower-tier schools, as researcher Dan O’Brien found in 2018.

BPS officials worked with Faude on her research and are aware of the problem. The solution, they hope, is better marketing and outreach.

“We’re looking at the demographics. What areas of the city those families are coming from,” said Monica Roberts, the district’s chief on family and community engagement.

When they discover a community being left behind, they’ve responded with “pop-up” welcome centers, targeted billboards, and other attempts at outreach. Meanwhile, the district is also monitoring the assignment program for equity shortfalls.

But for now, a system that was supposed to provide families with information and agency leaves many feeling perplexed, frustrated or left behind.

This story was first published by WBUR 90.9FM on Jan. 6. The Reporter and WBUR share content through a media partnership.