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Boston Herald

Time For New Report Card On Neighborhood Schools In Hub

By Felix Arroyo

June 13, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

Nearly 30 years ago, I moved to Boston from my native Puerto Rico confident I would find a model of educational excellence. After all, I had heard much about the city's rich history and knew Boston as home to many renowned colleges and universities. I truly expected the City of Boston would be an "Athens to the World."

Imagine my surprise and disappointment to find my new home sharply divided over issues of race and grappling with a controversial school desegregation order. Rather than focusing on quality, frustration with persistent inequalities resulted in a busing plan. It was immediately clear that obtaining universally excellent schools would be a long-term goal and not a quick fix.

Today, parents deserve a choice of high-quality public schools close to their homes AND a simpler school assignment process. In part as a response to this need, the city is considering a neighborhood schools model for elementary and middle schools.

Although we can begin to reform the school assignment process immediately, much work needs to be done before we can seriously consider neighborhood schools. Boston needs to plan, to improve, to reform, to carefully weigh options and to create new schools to relieve a sizable classroom seat shortage in some neighborhoods. That will take time.

The city should not adopt a neighborhood schools model without retaining a significant element of parental school choice, which fosters community, diversity, competition and reform. Additionally, any assignment plan must serve the individual needs of bilingual and special education students. We must have "one city" committed to showing equity and respect for all of our school children no matter what their background or where they live.

Currently 50 percent of seats at schools are reserved for students living within a 1-mile walk zone. To increase the walk zone preference to 75 percent, the city would have to offer equal access to quality schools in all neighborhoods. The Roxbury neighborhood is short by more than 1,000 elementary school seats annually and none of the new school assignment plans under consideration would resolve this or other classroom seat shortages in several neighborhoods.

The more aggressive neighborhood schools proposals would seriously worsen the problem by dramatically restricting the overall number and quality of public school options. The city should use readily available U.S. census numbers to plan for future demographic trends and build school capacity in proximity to growing student populations.

In considering quality, the city simply has not done enough to ensure that what is working in Boston's more effective and popular schools is used to improve the more troubled schools.

Boston's public school system was the first school system in the United States. Though we all are and should be proud of this history, it is time to address anew our collective commitment to fulfilling the promise of public schooling for Boston's children of today. It is essential that public officials work closely with communities, parents, school administrators, teachers and students to ensure our Boston schools are models of excellence.

We probably also should convene a school quality task force and a school location task force to seriously confront the basic underlying problems in our public school system. Rather than trumpet neighborhood schools as a cure-all, we must take the time to work together to improve all the public schools in all of our neighborhoods, build schools where they are needed and hold on to key commitments to equity and respect.

Felix D. Arroyo is a Boston City councilor and served eight years on the Boston School Committee.

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