A friend recently commented that she thought the Eliot School was in trouble under the new school assignment plan, approved by the Boston School Committee last week. And she made it very clear that a lot of other parents feel the same way.
I was surprised at that reaction. But I shouldn’t have been – the plan is new, complex and not easy to understand. I’ve been following the External Advisory Committee process carefully for the past six months and have been to most of the meetings over that time. So I’ve had a lot of time for it to sink in, and to figure out the plan and think about what it means, especially for the downtown schools.
Under the new assignment plan, the changes are clearly positive for those who wish to see families in the neighborhoods near the Eliot continue to have good access to the school. For the Eliot School some important things will remain the same; one key factor will change for the better; and one aspect will change, but that turns out not to matter.
First, some important things that won’t change: Students at the school now will be grandfathered, and so will their siblings. Current Eliot School families won’t be affected by the changes.
Second, for new families, one important factor will improve under the new assignment plan: The number of families that can choose the Eliot School will shrink dramatically. That should reduce the competition for places in the school.
This year, anyone in the entire North Zone (from East Boston to Brighton) can list the Eliot School as a choice. Under the new plan, for a family to choose the Eliot they’ll have to live more or less in the eastern part of the Back Bay or closer; north of the Mass Pike; in Charlestown; or in parts of East Boston. About two-thirds of Eliot students are from this area currently, and that should increase over time as the new plan takes effect.
The City of Boston’s interactive mapping tool shows the list of school choices under the new plan for any location in the city. By experimenting with where you click on the map, you can see whether the Eliot School is an option for any location.
And as schools elsewhere in the city improve or are added, under the new plan choices for other neighborhoods will change to become the schools that are closer to those neighborhoods. Further, even when the Eliot is an option for families farther away, I expect parents will choose schools closer to home if there are good choices available. So everyone benefits if there are more good schools anywhere in Boston. The new school on Commercial Street announced last week will not only provide a new option for nearby residents, but it will also be another choice for other families that might have chosen the Eliot School.
There are different, zone-based plans for students with disabilities and English language learners. But those zones also cover a similar area; in each case Cluster A has a high overlap with where today’s Eliot students live. (See the SWD plan and discussion, and the ELL plan and discussion.)
Third, the change that has generated the most concern, the elimination of the preference for those who are within the walk zone, doesn’t change the results for the Eliot School. The walk zone preference only guaranteed that at least 50% of the places would go to families in the walk zone (including siblings). For the Eliot School, the percentage is already above that, and headed higher under the new plan. Because so many of the applications for the Eliot School come from within the walk zone, a high percentage of the seats go to walk zone families. A 50% walk zone minimum doesn’t have any effect in practice.
Local parents would clearly feel more comfortable if that 50% were guaranteed. But new families hoping to send their children to the Eliot School should be confident that removing the walk zone preference will not reduce their chances of getting a space at the school. Further, the reduced competition for spaces under the new assignment plan may increase their chances.
The success of the Eliot School will continue. The families, students, teachers and administrators that have accomplished so much will still be able to work together to accomplish more, and provide a great education for your children.
Bruce Kiernan is a Boston Public Schools parent.