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External Advisory Committee (EAC) on Home-Based Model for School Choice

Letter from EAC Co-Chair Helen Dajer on Home-Based Model
The School Committee's March 13 vote to approve the Home-Based Model for school choice and assignment sets Boston on a path toward further improving our schools and strengthening our neighborhoods. This model, which was recommended by the External Advisory Committee on School Choice (EAC), brings Boston's students 40% closer to home and provides students and their families more equitable access to quality schools.
Almost every parent who has had to navigate the soon-to-be-retired school assignment system found the decades-old, three-zone system to be frustrating, unpredictable, confusing, and inequitable. Mayor Menino asked the EAC, which I had the honor to co-chair, to think outside the box to craft a new student assignment plan that works for the city's families and builds neighborhoods.

Addressing Challenges of Three-Zone System
The Home-Based Model the EAC recommended goes far to address the challenges of the three-zone system. It starts by giving families the option of every school within a mile of their address (the walk zone).  If needed, the model expands the number of choices to ensure families have several high-quality schools from which to choose. It also balances supply and demand, and so may add a school to ensure there is adequate capacity. Every family will have at least six choices. Some families will have more choices if they live close to many schools.

The Home-Based Model approved by the School Committee is a quality-centric model that includes walk zone access. It lets families choose a school close to home while at the same time linking their list of schools to quality and capacity. 

Importance of Walk-Zone Access
The EAC spent a significant amount of time discussing the walk zone concept. We looked at volumes of data on school distances and access to quality schools and listened to input on walk zones from community members. As a parent who lives around the corner from a school, I struggled greatly with this issue.
I firmly believe that walk zone access is appropriate and fair, and am delighted that the School Committee voted to preserve it in the Home-Based Model. Today, 86% of families list a school within their walk zone as one of their top choices. This plan ensures that a neighborhood school will always be part of a family's list.  In fact, the Home-Based Model increases the chance that a child will be able to attend a school that is one of his or her family's top three choices from about 70% in today's three-zone system to about 80% under the Home-Based Model. It also reduces by 40% the distance that children will travel to school.

It was the concept of walk zone priority that concerned me. While walk zone access ensures that families will always be able to choose a school within a one-mile radius of home, walk zone priority gives families who live within a mile of the school a better chance of getting into schools that are in high demand.
I originally voted in favor of leaving the walk zone priority as is. I felt that changing too much about the student assignment system at once would be difficult. However, following the EAC's vote, I studied additional analyses presented at a public hearing by professors from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Boston College on the walk zone priority and listened to strong community feedback on the issue. This information prompted me to agree that walk zone priority should be eliminated.

Advantages fo Home-Based Model
The Home-Based Model significantly increases predictability for families and decreases the distance children are traveling to attend school, making walk zone priority redundant. Because the starting point for the Home-Based Model is each child's address, there is no need to set aside seats in a school for children who live nearby, because under this model all children will live in the walk zone or dramatically closer to school.  I agree with the Superintendent's recommendation to eliminate the walk-zone priority under the Home-Based Model with the recommendation to review every aspect of the model a year after implementation.
As a parent with three children who have been in the Boston Public Schools since our first K-1 class in 2000, I am excited about the new opportunities the Home-Based Model offers to our families, schools, and neighborhoods. I am eagerly looking forward to 2014 – the first year when the new assignment system is put into place – and to continuing the ongoing conversation on improving school quality.
Helen Dajer
Co-Chair, External Advisory Committee on School Choice

Submitted:  March 25, 2013
Posted: March 30, 2013     Nancy J Conrad

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