Navigating the Boston Public Schools System

STEFAN LANFER HAS LIVED in Jamaica Plain for 10 years. He moved to the neighborhood not long after college, and in many ways he fits the profile of the J.P. lifer: politically engaged (both he and his wife, Ashley, work for nonprofits). Thoughtful. A sender of nondenominational holiday cards. And a muser on the joys of fatherhood, as chronicled in his blog, Dad Today. He and Ashley bought a condo here in 2007, a year after the birth of their son, James, and they’d be delighted to stay for the long haul.

[sidebar]But like many parents, Lanfer is wondering what the family will do when it’s time for James to go to kindergarten. He has spent countless hours researching the options, which has meant learning the ins and outs of Boston’s very convoluted lottery system of assigning kids to particular public schools. The city is divided into three large zones, and parents get to request the schools they like within their area. But there are no guarantees — it’s called a lottery for a reason — and often you simply get what you get. Will James land a spot in a good public school within walking distance, like the Boston Teachers Union School or the Haley? If not, should the family leave the city, like so many others who were convinced their children couldn’t get a good education in Boston public schools? James is in a private preschool now; his sister, Maya, will be heading there next year as well, and with the looming prospect of paying two tuitions, the family isn’t sure what the future holds.

“We’re certainly staying for now,” Lanfer says. “We’ll try a few things in the lottery, and we’ll see what happens.” A reasonable enough plan, but as Lanfer concedes, “It’s so easy for the whole process to become so intense and stressful, and to imagine that so much hinges on the starting line.”

And March is when the stress level reaches a fever pitch: Mid-month, BPS, as well as Boston’s publicly funded (but not BPS-affiliated) charter schools, mail out the results of their lotteries — results that, by and large, determine whether urban families of means stay where they are or start scouting real estate in Arlington or Needham or Newton.

And yet that’s not every family’s idea of a happy ending. It’s not a happy ending for Boston, either. “You need families to be the backbone of any neighborhood,” says Boston City Councilor at Large John Connolly, who lives in West Roxbury and plans to send his two small children to public school. “When they decide to settle in a place, they get invested in libraries and schools and safety.”

But Boston has long had a problem attracting and keeping young families. As the Boston Indicators Project (coordinated by the Boston Foundation) noted in a recent report, from 1960 to 2006 the city’s population of families with children declined from 81,000 to 55,000. That puts Boston near the bottom of the list of comparable cities.

Of course, there are many reasons families leave the city, like space concerns and real estate prices. But for most, it really does come down to education. “The single biggest factor in whether [families] will stay is whether they have a high-quality school for their children,” says Connolly, a former teacher and now chair of the city’s education committee. “In too many places across Boston, there’s no apparent quality school, and in the places where there is, there’s not enough seats. That’s had a huge impact on keeping a strong middle class in the city. And that’s not coded race language. That is the loss of the black, Latino, Asian, and white families who could make up a vibrant and diverse middle class.”

So Boston needs families, and there are families who want to be in Boston. How do you put the two together?

Part of the answer lies with a small but increasingly vocal group of devoted middle-class urbanites — families affluent enough to have a choice about where to live, but unable to afford the townhouse plus $30,000 per child for schools like Park and Commonwealth.

If you want to see some of these optimists in action, read Kelly Young’s blog, Braving the BPS Lottery. When Young’s son, Elliot, was three years old, she began investigating the public schools near her Roslindale home and putting her notes online. Today, her blog is a virtual meeting place for parents — mostly in the West Zone, which covers Jamaica Plain, Roxbury, West Roxbury, and Roslindale — to catch up on news about MCAS scores, school policy, and the dreaded lottery. (For more on how the lottery works, go to bostonmagazine.com/primer.)

The parents who frequent Young’s site have one thing in common: They’re finding creative ways to make Boston schools work for them. “I would argue (and I have) that our children have gotten better educations in the Boston Public Schools than many of their peers in wealthy suburban districts and at high-profile private schools in Greater Boston,” asserted one commenter. “Stay, stay, stay,” pleaded another.

What these parents want you to know — you nesting fence-sitters and reluctant suburbanites — is that if you really want to live in the city, there’s a way. In fact, you may have more options than you think.

Let’s take a look at some of them:

STRATEGY ONE: Go public, get lucky

STRATEGY TWO: Go public, take over the school

STRATEGY THREE: Home-schooling

STRATEGY FOUR: Scrimp for private school tuition

STRATEGY FIVE: Pick Catholic school, even if you’re not Catholic

  • Julie

    Thanks for this article. I just wanted to clarify a couple of points. Massachusetts parents have the right to educate their children outside of the school system. Cities and towns do not “allow” us to do so. Although this family consults the state curriculum guidelines, parents are not required to follow any curriculum. Another good resource for current or potential home educators is Advocates for Home Education in
    Massachusatts (AHEM).

  • justin

    When all of your children are 5 and under, you are not homeschooling, you are being a parent.

  • Kerry

    I think the point of the article was to demonstrate the options city parents have as their kids reach kindergarten age. That is, stay in the city or leave, and if they want to stay how they can make it work.

  • Dima Bilan

    I’m so frustrated at this stupid system I’m (we)
    are ready to move out of the state, maybe out of the USA. There is nothing fun about the way we live, racing from one activity to another, put on wait lists and then filling out a
    folder of forms and dishing out loads of money when my job is always in jeopardy.
    You can have it.