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For Downtown Families, No School at All

There are no public neighborhood elementary schools in the Back Bay or Beacon Hill. In this year's reforms, will hundreds of kids be left out again?

There’s little magic to being “in the zone” when it comes to school assignments in Boston. After Patch.com columnists  and  both wrote about the promise of neighborhood schools last week, I thought about our limited access to public schools in the downtown neighborhoods.

According to Boston Public Schools (BPS), every address in the city has a “walk zone” elementary school, which is one mile or less away.  The walk zone is the main factor by which school assignments are made in our city.

Yet since Beacon Hill lost its elementary school in 1975, the neighborhood, as well as the Back Bay (plus the West End and Fenway/Kenmore), has had the distinction of being the only part of the city with no neighborhood elementary.

Forget the anxiety-provoking process that Boston parents endure – selecting the best-fit schools in the zone you are allowed to apply for, accepting the realities of school busing, and then waiting for the lottery to find out if you’ve “won.” Let's just say you'd prefer that your children to attend one of the closest schools to your home.

Then imagine you live in a large condo building in the middle of the very residential part of Back Bay, 330 Beacon Street. The BPS matchmaking web tool says the closest schools are Quincy (in Chinatown), and Hurley (in the South End), both 0.96 miles away. Maybe you should dig out your pedometer, because Google Maps measures the distance as 1.2 miles. Since these are highly sought-after schools and just half of the seats at any school are reserved for students inside the walk zone, many who apply will not get in.

 “When you consider that the two schools in [our] walk zone are in Chinatown and the North End, it’s not likely that any eight-year-old is going to walk that distance alone, says Colin Zick, a Beacon Hill parent.  “That’s what a meaningful ‘walk zone’ is to me.” Despite the distance, when Mr. Zick’s children (now Boston Latin students) were young, they would have attended Quincy – had they succeeded in the lottery. 

In January, in his State of the City address, Mayor Tom Menino promised “a radically different student assignment plan – one that puts a priority on children attending schools closer to their homes” within the year. Whether this could help the downtown neighborhoods at all remains to be seen.

It’s not as if there are no kids downtown who need a school. Granted, in most of the other, larger neighborhoods in Boston, more than a third of the households include children under the age of 18.  In the South End and Charlestown, the fraction is a little less than a fifth. In the Back Bay and Beacon Hill, the percentages drop to 6 and 7 percent. But for these last two neighborhoods alone, that adds up to about 700 elementary-aged kids.

A decade ago, a group of enthusiastic parents backed by City Councilor Mike Ross created a plan to purchase a building on Beacon Hill for a new elementary/middle school. But after months of work, the city rejected their proposal out of fear of commitment to the future costs and what a school in a high-income part of town would drain from other needs. But remember that half the seats in the school would have gone to kids outside the immediate neighborhood, preventing it from being an elitist enclave in a system where many schools have a list of struggles. In a January 2003 Boston Globe editorial, the city’s decision was lamented, while the financing plan was called “inventive,” one that could have been a model for future projects.

“At a time of shrinking enrollment, downtown families have proved their commitment to the Boston Public Schools, oversubscribing to all possible elementary school options (Hurley, Eliot, Warren-Prescott, Quincy),” said City Councilor Mike Ross in an e-mail. “BPS is effectively self-fulfilling the prophecy that these families will move out of Boston in search of a public school near their home.”

John Connolly, city councilor at-large and the head of the Council’s Committee on Education, is “taking the whole question of assignment and transportation head on,” says Adam Webster, his chief of staff (Mr. Connolly was out of town). As Mr. Menino ramps up efforts at reform, the City Council’s efforts will be a parallel process to the mayor’s initiatives, says Mr. Webster.

Last week, as the next step in Mr. Menino’s pledge on schools, BPS Superintendent Carol R. Johnson announced a new 23-member school assignment advisory committee. Community meetings across the city on school assignments will start March 10 and last through the fall. No meetings to be held in the downtown neighborhoods have been announced.  

And on Feb. 27, the Beacon Hill Civic Association (BHCA) hosts a discussion for the community on BPS, part of the BHCA’s new strategic plan to help increase access to public schools. Colin Zick, along with another BHCA board member, will lead the meeting.

At this point, families like the Zicks, who would have benefited from a new Beacon Hill school years ago, have almost outgrown the need, leaving the quest for solutions to a virtual new generation. Will younger families again have the drive to push for better options downtown?

Kris Perkins, family minister of Park Street Church and another veteran observer, has heard some hints of "renewed interest." He was a supporter of the 2001-2003 public school movement on Beacon Hill, even as he helped to build momentum for the private Park Street School. “I thought it important at the time for both groups to be doing all we could, to offer as many schooling options for families downtown as possible, because the more quality schooling options available, the more likely we would retain families in the downtown community,” says Mr. Perkins. “And the more families present in our neighborhoods, the better off and stable our neighborhoods are.” 

We get that BPS resources – $830 million worth – are wisely spent on children and communities that truly have fewer choices when they can’t even consider private education. But recognition of the downtown families’ value to the BPS system would be welcome.

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