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Building a stronger city through stronger school communities

By Mayor Thomas M. Menino

This morning, more than 1,100 Boston students who live within a few blocks of each other boarded school buses and began long commutes to reach their classrooms in 67 different schools across our city. Together, they traveled more than 1,782 miles – the distance from Boston to Cheyenne, Wyoming.

These children live in the Bowdoin/Geneva section of Dorchester. Here, one in three children are raised by a single mother. The unemployment rate is twice the city average and nearly one in four families lives below the poverty level.

These are the very children our sprawling, three-zone student assignment system was designed to help nearly 25 years ago. But, instead of traveling to attend great schools, we see these children scattered across town, without the quality of the school they attend as a consideration.

The real way to lift communities like Bowdoin/Geneva into opportunity is not to split them up, but to build them up. This means investing in our schools and helping families attend quality schools closer to where they live.

Since I became Mayor we have turned a struggling school system into one of the 20 most improved districts in the world. In 1998, just 25 percent of high school students passed their math MCAS exams. Today, 86 percent do. Two years ago, we shifted to a new system that ensures dollars follow our students – schools receive funding based on the numbers and needs of our students they serve.

We are also making big changes in neighborhoods like Bowdoin/Geneva. Just four blocks from that intersection sits the Marshall Elementary School, where only ten percent of students scored highly on reading and mathematics MCAS exams last year.

Our new budgeting system has allowed us to invest an additional $600,000 in the Marshall and more impressive changes are ahead. Last month Superintendent Johnson announced UP Academy will transform it this fall, bringing great new teachers, a longer school day and a proven track record of high performance – all while remaining a Boston Public School and welcoming students of all levels of need and ability.

These changes would never have been possible had we not fought for and won needed reforms at the state level and in our teachers’ contract. Never before have we had the ability and the funding to turn struggling schools around at the pace that is underway today. But these successful strategies will only be effective if we go beyond just attracting students to schools close to home – but also enroll them there.

The only guarantee that our current student assignment process offers is frustration. Rather than being built around access to quality, it was built around the theory that splitting up school communities was the only way to help students succeed.

A generation later, we know it’s not working. If it were, a community like Bowdoin/Geneva would be benefiting from the hundreds of miles their children travel each morning and afternoon. Instead, these children miss out on after-school activities and tutoring because they must make the long trip home just after lunch.

It makes no sense.

Putting an end to the crippling cycle of poverty in neighborhoods like Bowdoin/Geneva requires community-building strategies that include great schools, access to health care, job training, crime prevention and foreclosure relief.

Together, our city offers all these things – and the coming transformation of the Marshall School is just the latest example. Some might say we must wait until all schools are great before taking any steps to end the daily scattering of our children, but I firmly believe we must do both at the same time. With successful new school turnaround tools, a teacher and principal evaluation system among the most advanced in the nation, and a budget that’s finally providing fair funding to the schools that need it the most, we are well on our way.

Creating quality school communities takes a commitment to both quality and community. We are up to this task and our children cannot wait for us to debate forever. In January, the External Advisory Committee on School Choice will review final recommendations for a new school assignment plan which balances choices, quality and community.

A solution to this long-fought issue is closer than it’s ever been. And the children of Boston are sure to benefit immensely.


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