Navigating the Boston Public Schools System


When Donna and Fred White had their first daughter in 1996, they thought they’d already answered the question of where to live. They loved the Everett neighborhood where they’d both grown up, and they had found the holy grail of affordable housing: buying Fred’s grandmother’s home. But they couldn’t prevent their friends from steadily decamping to posh suburbs like Winchester and Newton. “There was a group of us trying to keep that [exodus] from happening,” Donna says. They hung on through preschool, but in 2002 they, too, gave in and called the movers.

But it wasn’t exactly middle-class flight. Because when the Whites finally left, they did so for a 1,200-square-foot loft in Boston’s Fort Point Channel neighborhood. “I wanted to be close to work so I could spend more time with my children rather than in traffic,” says Donna, an estate-planning attorney. They also figured Boston would be fun. Their suburban friends, however, thought they were crazy. White’s oldest daughter, Sheila, was just about to start kindergarten, and their youngest, Sarah, was barely a toddler. This was not the natural time to say no to Hingham.

Initially the Whites chose a private school for their daughter — first a Catholic school near their neighborhood and, shortly thereafter, Kingsley Montessori in the Back Bay. But they grew weary of that rarified world. “It’s a lovely place,” Donna says, “but at some point, how do you explain to your child that everyone doesn’t go to Aruba for spring break?”

So the family began looking for alternatives. That’s when a friend told them about the up-and-coming Josiah Quincy Elementary School in Chinatown. “When you walk into it, it feels like a big cement block,” says Donna. “But knowing parents who went ahead of us reassured us.” Sheila was soon thriving there. And when Sarah was old enough to enter the lottery, she was assigned to the Eliot — a once-failing school in the North End that has become a first choice for many parents, thanks in large part to the turnaround efforts of principal Traci Walker Griffith.

By all measures, the Whites struck gold. They’re delighted with both elementary schools, which they’ve found to be academically challenging and orderly. They are quick to brush off two common fears: that kids in urban schools necessarily have extreme behavior issues, and that smart, obedient children inevitably get lost in large classrooms with special-needs students. “I don’t think Sarah is losing anything by being in public school,” Donna says. “She has advanced work classes, and her teachers are aware of different capabilities across the classroom.” By choosing the Quincy and Eliot schools when they were still up-and-coming and not yet oversubscribed, the Whites had a better shot in the lottery. (At more-established choice schools, the odds are much lower.) And they hit the jackpot when Sheila was accepted to Boston Latin — the benchmark for Boston public high schools, where admission is based on test scores rather than the lottery.

Now they try to spread the word, reminding friends of the city’s high-performing BPS and charter school options. “In our building we have four new families, and we’ve been actively encouraging them to stay,” Donna says. And not just for their own sake. “The schools that are the most successful have active parents. To the extent that people are staying and willing to be active, it makes a difference.”

  • 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.