Assignment panel facing a tough job

The Menino administration has released the names of the men and women picked by the mayor to give oversight to an overhaul of the city’s student assignment plan. There are some very capable people on the panel— including Dorchester’s own Robert Gittens, Bill Walczak, and Brendan McDonough, proven leaders who have innovated and made important contributions to our neighborhood and to Boston as a whole.

Even the most able collection of volunteers, however, will have a tough time meeting the challenge put in front of them by the mayor, who laid down an ambitious pledge to create a “radically different” assignment plan in his State of the City address last month.

Menino says he wants to update a system that he acknowledges was designed “for a different time and city” and offer more “predictability for families” entering the BPS lottery. Another important goal of this reform is to rein in transportation spending, which is projected to grow to an all-time high of $100 million by 2014.

The work of this advisory group will begin next month with a series of large group meetings across the city, including one set for March 10 at Mattapan’s Mildred Avenue School, starting at 11 a.m. The plan outlined by BPS officials this week calls for more than 60 meetings over the next six months in settings large and small.

It’s important to have a transparent, inclusive process to achieve buy-in on a new plan from constituencies across the city.

Menino is right in his assessment that the Boston Public Schools must do a better job in engaging parents about the options available to them in their current zones. There have been good improvements made in recent years to student and teacher performance — and to certain facilities.

But there is too little information shared about what’s happening in the schools in our neighborhood. That’s been the case for many years now and that disconnect discourages parents from giving consideration to schools that might merit a second look during the selection process. It may not be the main charge of this advisory group, but improving the relationship between the BPS and its main clients — the parents or potential users of the system — has to be one outcome of any successful reform initiative.

There remain other major hurdles that have proven impossible to clear in the past when addressing so-called “neighborhood schools.” There are large sections of the city where there are simply not enough school buildings to accommodate the demands of the school-age population. This is not something that is likely to be fixed in the short term. Legitimate concerns that creating smaller zones — and more of them — will cut off large blocs of students from better quality schools are still very much alive in Dorchester and Mattapan.

Yet, there is a political appetite for the promise of real change in this round of negotiations. It will take strong leadership from the advisory group that needs to challenge the Menino administration and compel school officials to provide a baseline assessment of what the political leadership of the city is willing to do to make a “radically different” assignment plan a reality by this time next year.

Most of all, it will require strong leadership from Mayor Menino, who already knows well the limitations and possibilities of changing this system.

– Bill Forry

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