Freer Choice Wins in School Assignment Debate
School Committee reverses direction, will substitute a lottery system to balance schools socioeconomically.
In the face of stiff opposition from parents to its proposed student school assignment policy, the School Committee changed direction Monday.
The new proposed policy on what schools parents may apply to was called “complicated” and “hard to explain,” but it seemed to please most of the parents who attended the school committee meeting.
In place of limiting parents' choice of the kindergarten to the two schools closest to their home, the committee is now considering a process that would allow parents to apply to have their children enter any Salem school.
The schools would seek to balance the socioeconomic makeup of each school by limiting the number of students who receive federally subsidized lunches. The limit in each school would be determined by the total percentage of students who receive free or reduced price lunches in the entire district.
“When a school's student composition becomes socioeconomically imbalanced when contrasted to other schools in the District, that school's environment and educational opportunities also become imbalanced, contributing to educational inequality,” the proposed policy stated.
The committee embraced socioeconomic balance in schools because “interaction with students from different backgrounds and abilities is a powerful tool for advancing student learning and performance as well as preparation to live in the larger world,” according to the policy.
Currently, the schools are unbalanced in the number of low-income students.
Two schools – Saltonstall and Witchcraft Heights – have about 38 percent of their students who come from low-income households. The Horace Mann School is the most balanced and most reflective of Salem's population with 51 percent of its students from low-income households.
Five schools had higher levels of low-income students. They are Bates with 58 percent, Collins Middle School and Bowditch with 63 percent, Carlton with 72 percent and Bentley with 73 percent low-income students.
The proposed policy's goal would seek to balance the schools within five years, starting next fall with kindergarten students.
Policy will be voted on by end of April
At the meeting Monday night, the full committee considered the new policy for the second time. It will meet again on the policy after the spring break, then vote on it before the end of April.
Dr. Janet Crane, who heads the policy subcommittee that drafted the new rules, said her subcommittee “listened to the public” and decided to return to a “free choice” policy.
Committee member Deborah Amaral objected to calling the process "free choice." She said it is still controlled by the school administration.
Mayor Kimberley Driscoll said that the new policy would offer parents more choice, but called the new proposal “complicated.” She worried that the process will “be hard to explain.”
The committee proposed to leave it up to the school administration to explain the procedures.
The example given by Dr. Crane was: If 58 percent of all students in Salem receive subsidized lunches, then the administration would strive to make each kindergarten class composed of 42 percent non-subsidized students and 58 percent subsidized lunch students.
Parents, in applying to the district to have their students enrolled, would list their first three choices of schools.
If more students in either category apply to a school than it has openings, the district would give priority to those students within a one-mile radius of the school, which is considered walking distance. Then, the district would hold a lottery to pick from the remaining pool of students in the category with more students than places.
There would be exceptions for students with special education needs or language needs. The district would also keep siblings together.
About a dozen parents attended the meeting. Asked if they were happy with the new proposed policy, several agreed they were “happier.”
Leanne Schild with the Salem Education Foundation said she was pleased with the proposed new policy. “I am so proud of this community. We should give ourselves a pat on the back," she said.
Ward 5 City Councilor Josh Turiel said he thinks the proposed policy is much improved. “Hopefully we will get more neighborhood balance in the process,” he said.
Superintendent Stephen Russell, pledging that implementation of the policy would be visible to the public, said the administration would begin sending out the registration packets in about a week. Parents may fill them out and return them by May 15. Each packet will include two forms – one that would have the parents list their three choices of schools, and one that is used to determine if their student qualifies for free or reduced lunches.
Decisions on school assignments would be made June 1 if the proposal passes.
The committee agreed that the new approach would not give some parents an edge in getting their children assigned to their first choice.
“The aggressive parent, the parent who makes a lot of calls, does not have an advantage,” said Dr. Brendan Walsh.
Survey on Uniforms Coming
The school administration is finalizing a survey of all elementary school age students regarding their preference for having uniforms.
If a majority of parents vote for uniforms, then the committee will develop a plan for implementing uniforms for kindergarten through eighth grade, including the style and costs.
“Here is one vote for uniforms at Saltonstall,” Mayor Driscoll said, indicating she favors uniforms for her elementary school-aged child.