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March 14, 2013

The City of Boston is adopting a new school assignment policy that the school committee voted on late Wednesday night that aims to offer more students the option to attend schools closer to home.

Under the new policy, families have a list of schools that are categorized by various factors such as MCAS scores, distance and classroom size. Boston School Committee spokesman Lee McGuire said the new plan will reduce the distance students will have to travel to school by 40 percent, and will increase the chances of a family getting the school they requested.

“It doesn’t matter where you live, it doesn’t matter how far away a great school is, but we’re always going to give you some great options on your list,” McGuire said. “And from there you can make a decision. Do you want to go to a school that has top MCAS scores? Maybe that school is right across the street, maybe it’s a little farther away. We want to make sure you have that choice, but also make sure that you have access to all the schools that are within a mile of your house.”

City Councilor John Connolly, who is running for mayor, said the new plan is more confusing that the previous one, and that it’s misleading to call this change “bold reform.”

“People are being sold a bill of goods here,” Connolly said. “Most families will have at least 10 choices under this new system, but no priority for the choices that are closest to where they live.”

A computer algorithm developed by MIT Ph.D. student Peng Shi will generate a list of schools based on how parents chose schools in the past. This is paired with a second algorithm, which factors in various demographics like socioeconomics, race and ethnicity.

McGuire said the new algorithm increases access to quality schools.

“We’re pretty confident that the algorithm does a great job matching people’s choices with the schools they’ve selected, balancing supply and demand and the choices people made,” he said. “What we’re trying to do here is help people attend schools closer to where they live.”

Connolly said the algorithm isn’t the answer to improving Boston schools.

“You shouldn’t need an MIT scientist to tell you which schools are under-performing and which schools aren’t,” he said. “And you shouldn’t need an MIT scientist to develop a real plan focused on developing quality at every school.”

The new school assignment plan will go into effect in fall of 2014. Students currently enrolled will be able to stay at their schools, with the city providing busing until 2020.

higher ed, Education, new business models, increasing access and success, technology and innovation, MIT

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