Frequently Asked Questions

Families are asking great questions about the Improving School Choice proposals. We’re doing our best to answer the most common questions here. If you have other questions, send us an email at choice@bostonpublicschools.org, and thanks!

Q: When would these changes take effect?

A: BPS proposes that any significant changes to the school choice system would take effect beginning in the 2014-2015 school year. This means that families choosing schools for the upcoming 2013-2014 school year will do so under the existing three-zone plan.

Q: Would my child have to change schools under any new plan?

A: No. In all proposed plans, BPS would “grandfather” current students and let them stay at the school they are in. This means that no student would be asked to move from a school they are already attending. However, BPS might not provide transportation after the 2019-2020 school year for students in out-of-zone schools. At that point, we might offer MBTA passes for students in grades six and higher who are in out-of-zone schools.

Q: Would the proposals offer sibling preference?

A: Yes, sibling preference would continue in the BPS proposals. BPS also proposes that younger siblings could select out-of-attendance-area schools through the 2019-20 school year if their older brother or sister already attends that school. The EAC has endorsed this proposal.

Q: What would happen to my walk zone choices?

A: 86 percent of BPS families listed a walk zone school as one of their top three choices last year. BPS proposes to keep elementary and middle walk zone preference as part of any school choice proposal. It would work much as it does today: A student has a higher priority to attend an elementary school that is within a one-mile radius of the student’s home or, for a middle school, a one-and-a-half mile radius — even if that school is across a zone boundary line. However, BPS does propose to modernize our system of defining “one mile.” We currently use a large web of “geocodes” to estimate how far a school is from any point in the city. These were created long ago, before we had computer mapping software, and they’re not very accurate. Today, we can calculate “one mile” without using geocodes.

Q: What if I don’t see any quality schools in my new zone?

A: The updated models (proposed January 23) were designed to create a more equitable school choice system, which provides a better balance of quality choices than today’s system. At the same time, BPS is focused on improving school quality. Our 11 Turnaround Schools are showing greater growth than the district average and 44 percent more families are choosing these schools as a first choice today than just three years ago. Now, we are focused on 21 additional schools – called “High Support Schools.” Some of these schools have welcomed new students from lower-performing schools, and all of them are showing less growth and overall performance than we would like. We are taking the strategies that are working in our Turnaround Schools and are applying these lessons to these 21 additional schools.

Q: What about AWC (Advanced Work Class) programs? What if my new zone doesn’t have a school with such a program?

A: The BPS Advanced Work Class program offers an accelerated academic curriculum to students in grades 4, 5 and 6. Student participation is by invitation only and is based on a student’s scores on an eligibility test. Only certain schools offer an AWC program, so BPS allows students to change schools to access the program if they are eligible. Under the proposed models, BPS would do two things to ensure any qualified student can continue to access an AWC program. First, BPS would work to place more AWC programs in schools that already have students who are eligible for the program or who are living nearby; and second, BPS would allow students to transfer schools so they could access an AWC program even if that school is outside a student’s home zone or choice set. For example, if no school on a student’s choice list has AWC programming but the student qualifies for the program, then that student could transfer to a school outside his or her choice set and BPS would provide transportation.

Q: Federal money for Turnaround Schools runs out after this year. How is BPS going to ensure these school quality efforts continue?

A: The federal government gave BPS $21 million to spend over three years on our Turnaround Schools. This is the third and final year of the funding. For next year, we are able to continue these quality improvements in these schools – and in even more schools – with new city resources, including $30 million in new Quality School Improvement Funds from Mayor Menino. You can read much more about the proposed FY14 budget and see school-by-school budgets on the BPS Budget page.

Q: The three-zone system lets BPS move students around the city if certain schools don’t have enough space. If BPS moves to a new plan, would there be seats for all the student who would enroll in all neighborhoods?

A: Part of our five-year capital plan involves a look at how much space is in each school, how many students might come to that school, and how the building space would be used.  This would tell us about estimates of future extra capacity and shortages. Some of this will depend on the plan that the EAC selects; these patterns of school use would be different under a zone-based plan than they would be under a home-based plan. However, we know that we already have extra capacity in Allston-Brighton, which is why we propose to convert one high-quality school to a regional option. We have committed to identifying space for a school to serve families who live near downtown. In East Boston, we may expand the high-performing Montessori program at the East Boston EEC into the former Alighieri building, which would add seats and space. Beyond this, we could open modular classrooms in other parts of the city where space may be an issue – especially as more families choose the Boston Public Schools.

Q: Would families in the Mission Hill neighborhood still have access to the Mission Hill K-8 under the Home-Based proposals?

A: Yes. The Home-Based model would offer walk zone access for families who live within one mile of the current Jamaica Plain location and the former location at 67 Alleghany St., Roxbury. The model would also take both the current and Alleghany Street location into account for assignment purposes, which means families outside the one-mile radius may also receive the school on their choice lists. Please note the on-line interactive tool does not properly capture this feature.

Q: BPS has said it will create a dual-language program in East Boston. Where would it be?

The Office of English Language Learners proposes to add three more dual-language programs in BPS, bringing the total to seven, with one in every ELL cluster. This year school leaders, teachers and District administrators will work together to identify the schools that would be able to create these programs in the best way possible, to serve the most students with the highest-quality programs. We have not yet identified the specific schools.

Q: What would these proposals mean for diversity in schools? Will the teaching staff reflect the diversity of the students?

A: 42 percent of our students are Hispanic, 35 percent are black, 13 percent are white and eight percent are Asian. 78 percent are eligible to receive free and reduced-price meals and 53 percent are eligible for SNAP (food stamps). The MIT School Effectiveness and Inequality Initiative studied the three proposals that are being considered for a new school choice system and found that all three protect the diverse school communities we value today. Their report finds that none of the plans would substantially change the demographic make-up of our schools. As for our teachers, BPS is recruiting and retaining a diverse team of educators who can help serve our students with a deep understanding of their diverse cultural heritage. We have not met the goals yet, and we agree we need to do more. Today, about 40 percent of our school leaders are African American, but only 22 percent of our teachers are. About 15 percent of our school leaders are Hispanic, but only 12 percent of our teachers are. We agree that these numbers need to go up, especially for our teaching staff. We have just hired a new Director of Diversity in our Human Resources Department to increase our recruitment and retention of teachers of color. This year we also created a School Diversity Support Team, which is working with schools right now as they plan their hiring for this coming fall. This team is made up of representatives from our Office of Equity, Office of the Achievement Gap and Human Resources.

Q: What if I don’t think there are enough high-quality schools near where I live – how is BPS improving school quality, particularly in communities where lower access to quality schools is a concern?

A: Today our graduation rate is higher than it has ever been and the drop-out rate is at one of its lowest levels in decades. Our mission continues to be to ensure every school is a place every family would be happy to choose. There’s much more to do. Here are the new steps we are taking as we continue to raise school quality:

  • New investments in schools with higher need:
    • Mayor Menino has announced a $30 million investment in new Quality Improvement Funds to support quality and capacity improvements across BPS.  $15 million for improvements to school facilities, including buildings and technology, and $15 million to improve education in the schools.
    • Schools with a very high number of students living in poverty have additional challenges to overcome when compared to other schools. Our FY14 budget proposal will increase the funding weight for students in schools with high concentrations of poverty. Any school with more than 60 percent of its students receiving Free and Reduced Price Lunch would receive additional resources.
    • High Support Schools are 21 schools showing lower growth and overall performance than other BPS schools, but which lack the intervention tools that Turnaround Schools have. Next year, these schools will receive targeted support, including prioritized partnerships with community-based organizations for tutoring and out-of-school learning; vacation-week Acceleration Academies for students; dedicated data teams, literacy and math coaches; and performance evaluation and professional development support.
  • Between six and eight additional In-District Charter and Innovation Schools:
    • These schools have greater flexibilities than traditional BPS schools, including longer school days. These tools allow us to quickly improve quality while allowing current students to remain in a school. At UP Academy, for example, students are showing stronger academic growth today than anywhere else in the state. We are already expanding this program with a new location, UP Academy of Dorchester, which we propose to open this fall, which will welcome all students from the Marshall Elementary School who choose to enroll. No matter what school assignment plan is created, there will still be communities that have a lower overall access to quality than others. We will prioritize these communities for the creation of high-quality In-District Charter and Innovation School programs for the 2014-15 school year.
  • Additional flexibilities for Level 3 Schools:
    • Mayor Menino has proposed legislation that would extend flexibilities and support grants to more schools, including the ability to extend the school day and offer more professional development for teachers. These strategies have worked well in our Turnaround Schools, which have longer days and are showing stronger academic growth than ever before – and are outpacing district averages.
  • More access to K-8 schools and guaranteed K through 8th grade pathways
    • K-8 programs remain highly popular with families, and we want every family to have a K-8 option on their list of possible schools. Since 2004 we have doubled the number of K-8 schools in BPS. We are planning even more and would link elementary schools to middle schools so students have a predictable pathway. Under this proposal, students could also make other middle school choices if desired.
  • High-quality programs for English Language Learners that are closer to home
    • There are about 17,000 English Language Learners (ELL students) in BPS. Many of these students require academic programs tailored to meet their specific language needs but these programs are not offered in every school. BPS proposes an “ELL Overlay” (or plan) to ensure these students from all neighborhoods always have access to an appropriate program as close to home as possible. BPS proposes to add three more dual-language programs where students learn in two languages, bringing the instruction closer to the neighborhoods where families live who may want that program.
  • High-quality programs for students with disabilities that are closer to home
    • One in five BPS students has a disability and requires programs that are tailored to meet their specific needs but these programs are not offered in every school. BPS proposes a students with disabilities “SWD overlay” (or plan) to ensure these students always have access to an appropriate program as close to home as possible. Each overlay cluster area will offer at least one inclusive and one substantially-separate option for students with commonly-occurring disabilities and moderate or high levels of need. These disabilities include (but are not limited to) autism, emotional impairment, mild/moderate intellectual impairment and specific learning disabilities. We will continue to increase Inclusive programs throughout our schools. There are already 26 schools that have joined the “Inclusive Schools Network” in order to share and learn from one another so that they can better educate students with disabilities in ways that benefit all students.
  • Targeted support for teacher and school leader performance evaluations
    • Our Office of Teacher and Leader Effectiveness is getting information about what BPS teachers know and what they want to learn. This information and supporting data give us observation-driven performance evaluations, which are linked to goal-setting and professional development plans. Our teachers and school leaders are on-track to receive strengthened evaluations and support to improve performance this year.

We have already taken many steps to improve the quality of schools and offer better options for families. Together, we have:

  • Implemented a new teachers’ contract, which includes what we believe is the most powerful and effective performance evaluation system for teachers and school leaders in the nation. The contract also increases the number of nurses and social workers in our schools to further support students’ non-academic needs;
  • Shifted to a weighted student funding model to enable a fair funding structure across all BPS schools, in which resources follow students no matter what school they attend;
  • Dramatically improved services for English Language Learners thanks to investments in professional development, certifications, and the dedicated work of the BPS ELL Task Force. The academic gains are already beginning to show in test scores;
  • Invested in extended days and great teachers in our Turnaround Schools – where academic growth is outpacing the District average and where 44 percent more families are listing these schools as a top choice;
  • Brought weekly arts and music back to 14,000 students;
  • Launched successful new athletic programs, and support to get our athletes applying to college;
  • Offered free breakfast for every student;
  • Increased the number of BPS Kindergarten classrooms that have the highest national certification for great teaching and learning (NAEYC)
  • Doubled summer learning opportunities for students K-12 (11,000 students in 2012);
  • Expanded our very best schools and launched Innovation Schools and In-District Charter Schools to dramatically improve academic experiences while ensuring all students receive the appropriate services so we can continue to close achievement gaps, and
  • Reorganized our central office to better respond to what our schools need. This new system of mutual accountability ensures central office supports are prioritized for the schools and students that need them the most.

We are glad to be having this conversation with you about ways to continue to raise school quality in every school, for every child. As the Superintendent said at the community meeting on February 4, this conversation must continue even as we select a new school choice system. We want to create a ‘feedback loop’ that helps families engage District leaders about ways to improve school quality. This winter we are creating a new central office structure to ensure our academic leaders and principals meet with families on a regular basis in the communities we serve – to focus specifically on school quality and make sure we are delivering on the promises we make to students.

Q: Can High Support Schools get the same kinds of resources, like extended days, that Turnaround Schools are getting?

A:High Support Schools are BPS schools that are not showing as much overall academic growth and performance as we would like, but which are not Turnaround Schools. Students in these schools have similar needs for improved quality instruction but lack the flexibilities around longer school days and other changes that we have in our Turnaround Schools. We propose to use the Mayor’s $30 million Quality Improvement Fund in our Turnaround and High Support Schools. We are also asking the state legislature to let us extend the same opportunities of more time and different staffing to our Turnaround Schools to more schools, including the High Support Schools. But even before this happens – right now – we are giving attention to partnerships for the High Support Schools. Students in these schools have access to after-school tutoring, partnerships and vacation-week Acceleration Academies. These schools are also receiving new investments in technology and facilities to support student learning. These schools also tend to benefit from our weighted student funding plan, which distributes extra resources to schools that have concentrations of poverty greater than 60 percent.

Q: What’s the difference between the 10-zone proposal BPS presented in January, and the 11-zone proposal the EAC is talking about now?

The 11-zone proposal is the same as the one presented in January except it creates two zones for the Dorchester area. The EAC suggested this change because under the 10-zone proposal, this community (zone 7) had the largest zone with nearly twice as many students in it as anywhere else. With this change, the number of choices ranges from three to nine schools, with an average of seven, across the city – in addition to citywide options.

Q: We know BPS is increasing the number of schools that offer inclusive settings for students with disabilities. Would access to these schools be limited due to the SWD overlay?

A: Inclusive classrooms allow students with disabilities to learn alongside their non-disabled peers in an appropriate setting. Studies show that all students – with disabilities and without – succeed better in these classrooms over the long-term, so we are expanding the number of classrooms and schools that offer inclusive programs. As we implement the SWD overlay, we would ensure that all clusters include high-quality inclusive programs. An equitable distribution of these programs would be a very important consideration as we expand inclusive opportunities across the District.

Q: Will walk zone and sibling preference be available for students with disabilities who are assigned via the SWD overlay? What about English Language Learners who would choose programs within the ELL overlay?

A: Our goal is to provide students with disabilities and English Language Learners the same types of access we provide to all students. This would allow us to offer walk zone access and sibling priority to these students, but this would only be possible if the school offers the appropriate program to meet their needs.

Q: All elementary schools feed into middle schools. What about Early Education Centers and Early Learning Centers – do they feed into elementary schools?

A: No. Just as today, students attending these schools would need to make new school choices as they exit the program at the EEC or ELC. Most EEC’s and ELC’s go from grade K0 through first grade (one goes to third grade) but some families leave for other elementary schools earlier.

Q: In-District Charter Schools (such as UP Academy and Dudley Street Neighborhood Charter School) are citywide, by state law. How would converting a school in a neighborhood without enough access to quality help these students?

A: In-District Charter Schools are charter schools that are part of the BPS network. They are funded just like other schools in BPS; but are citywide by current law, meaning students from anywhere in Boston can apply to enter their random admission lottery. Mayor Menino has asked the state legislature to allow these schools to admit students on a more limited area basis, meaning they could focus their admissions to students who live in a particular part of the city. One option is to convert lower-performing schools to In-District Charter Schools, as we have in the past. This allows current students to remain in the building as the school transforms to offer a much higher-quality program with longer school days.

Q: Why don’t you raise school quality before you change the student assignment system?

A:  The student assignment system has been in place since 1988. Since then, quality has improved dramatically, schools have moved, closed and opened, and the population has grown much more diverse – but the three-zone lines have stayed the same. Every year families tell us they are frustrated with the current assignment system because it in confusing, unpredictable and seems inequitable. While a student assignment process itself cannot change school quality, a more predictable system can help more families explore their school options, get involved in schools and make the best choices. We know that today, for those just beginning in BPS, families tell us the number of school choices makes it hard to learn about all of them. There is still much work to be done and we are always focused on continuing to raise quality – but we are ready for an improved school choice system that offers quality schools, close to home. Every year 86 percent of incoming families request a school within one mile of their home as a top choice, and we can create a system that does more to deliver these choices, while improving equity and focusing on raising quality for everyone. Mayor Menino has also created a $30 million Quality Improvement Fund, which will help BPS invest in quality schools and facilities as we roll out a new school choice system in the coming years.

Q: Do the home-based models use zones?

A: No. With these models, BPS would give you a customized list of schools that are designed around your address. Families living near each other on the same street or in the same building would have the same lists, or very similar lists, of schools to choose from. Everyone’s list would have all the citywide schools on it, as well as every school within one mile from your home, and then other schools that are added as needed to ensure every child has high-quality schools to choose.

Q: In the home-based models, what are the ‘MCAS Tiers’?

A:  The Home-Based models are designed to ensure every child has high-quality schools to choose from, even if these schools are further away from home. In these models, we look at a combination of overall MCAS performance (or test scores) and student academic growth to measure school quality. While there are many ways to define quality, we want to use a system that is transparent and measurable, which is why we are using MCAS. From there, we sort all schools that serve students in grades K through 8 into four Tiers. Tier I are the top 25% of schools; Tier II are schools in the 26-50% range, and so on. Under this system, half of our schools would always be in the top two tiers, and the other half would be in the bottom, although there may be better ways of defining quality and this must be an ongoing conversation. We know that families chose schools for many different reasons. For student assignment purposes, every student would be guaranteed to have several schools in the top half of school quality on their choice list, regardless of where they live. This way, every child always has high-performing schools to choose from.

Q: Under the Home-Based plans, wouldn’t you need to update the tiers? Would that mean choice lists would change?

A: The Home-Based plans are designed to be responsive to changes in school quality. They ensure every child always has high-quality schools to choose from. The current proposal uses MCAS scores (overall scores as well as growth measures) to determine the Tier a school is placed in. Because students take MCAS exams every year, this means the Tiers could change every year – but this would mean a family might not know what their school choices would be until a few months before school choice season begins. If a Home-Based proposal is selected, the School Committee would work to set a clear policy to outline how often BPS would update the Tier rankings, as well as a transparent system for understanding how the Tiers are developed. We might create a community process to update these quality metrics every three or five years, for example, to ensure the system is flexible and responds to changes in school quality while also giving families plenty of time to plan ahead.

Q: If we adopt a system that has smaller zones than today, or which puts a priority on choices that are closer to home, do we still need to have walk zones?

A: The EAC is discussing this very issue. This is actually two different concepts: Walk zone access and walk zone priority. Walk zone access means that every school within one mile from a child’s home will always appear on their choice lists, even if it is across a zone boundary. Walk zone priority means that BPS sets aside 50 percent of a school’s seats for students who live within one mile, and that these students get a priority to receive one of these seats over a student who lives further away. This was designed to give families more assurance that they could attend a school close to home in the three-zone system, where most schools on a child’s choice list are quite far from home. The EAC conversation is focused on whether walk zone priority is still necessary in a system that itself would offer a better chance of attending a school close to home – and whether the priority changes families’ access to quality schools.

Q: One of my children is in a good school today, but the other is not in a good school. Would a new system mean I’d have both children in a bad school?

A: Current students would not need to change schools under any of the proposals. However, ‘sibling priority- the chance of going to school with a brother or sister’ would still apply, just as it does today. This means if you would like both children to attend the same school, you can visit a Family Resource Center to request a new school for either child. If there is room in the school one child attends, then your other child would have priority for a seat there – but whether you want to use this option is up to you.

Q: What happens with regard to schools that have two sites – such as the Kilmer K-8, which has an upper and a lower campus?

The Home-Based model would operate under similar conditions as today. At the Kilmer, which has a Lower and an Upper building, families who live in the walk zone of the Lower as well as families who live in the walk zone of the Upper would have walk zone access to the school. The Home-Based model would also take both locations into account for assignment purposes. Please note, the online interactive tool does not properly capture this important feature — but the proposal, if approved, would take this into account.