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Boston's New Pupil-Assignment Plan Keeps Students Closer to Home

After months of planning, Boston's School Committee voted yesterday to approve a new student-assignment plan, which the district says will keep more K-8 students in schools closer to home.

The vote marks an historic shift away from a plan developed while the district was still under a court order to desegregate its schools. The beginning of busing in Boston, in 1974, was marked by violence and contention. The current three-zone plan, developed in 1989, was contested by African-American board members at the time of its implementation and has long been decried as confusing and overly complex. (Here's a timeline of steps taken on busing since 1989.)

The share of white students in the district has plummeted since the 1970s: The district's 57,000 students are now 87 percent nonwhite. But a majority of the district's students are still bused out of their neighborhood under the current system. The district has considered replacing the zone system without success several times since 1989, when the court lifted its desegregation order.

Under the new plan, starting in 2014-15, Boston families will receive a list of six schools generated by a computer formula that takes into account "quality, location, and capacity." The district says it will cut the average distance students travel to school by 40 percent and will also increase the chances that a family gets into one of their preferred schools.

In a marked contrast to the divisive beginnings of the current plan, the new system was approved by a wide margin. The Boston School Committee approved the new plan in a 6-to-1 vote.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino called the plan a "new day" for Boston's children, saying that the new system will be more predictable and help keep students in the district close to home. Menino is also promoting new education legislation that aims to improve the quality of school options around the city by, among other things, removing the cap on district-run charter schools and expanding the district's authority to intervene in low-performing schools.

John Barros, the only committee member who voted against the plan, said he was concerned about the number of available seats in high-performing public schools in some neighborhoods, the Boston Globe reports.

Some community members also expressed concerns about the new plans, both during their development and after yesterday's board meeting. Protesters are concerned that quality schools are unevenly spread throughout the city and that some residents of some neighborhoods will have worse options than others.

This recent article outlines the three options that were up for consideration by the committee. A district website provides more information on the plan and allows parents to explore which schools the model might suggest. The school district emphasized in a statement that no student would be forced to change schools, as the new system will be grandfathered in.

Dipping into the archives, here's reporting on the fraught 1989 vote that established a three-zone system in the city. The district also considered dismantling the zone system in 1998.

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