Navigating the Boston Public Schools System
Come kindergarten, urban families have no choice but to flee the city for the ’burbs, right? Think again. It is possible to put together a great education for your kids right in Boston. Here’s how.
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:
GO PUBLIC, GET LUCKY
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.”
GO PUBLIC, TAKE OVER THE SCHOOL
Matthew and Caroline Foscato thought the suburbs were inevitable once they had their surprise twins, Evan and Nicholas, in 2002. The couple’s South End apartment, where they live today, has just 900 square feet. But they decided to give the city a try as parents. “Understanding how you make the city your playground, how to create a community…. We just had to learn how to operate differently,” Caroline says.
Private school tuition was never an option. But the Foscatos entered the public system at a pivotal moment. Their local school, the Joseph J. Hurley, was being turned around by a group of ambitious parents and a new principal, Marjorie Soto. “Neighborhood people got involved because the school was both underperforming and underenrolled,” Caroline says. “Parents knew that when the time came, they could get a spot.” It’s a story that has been repeated in many other schools around the city: Warren-Prescott in Charlestown; Quincy; and Ellis Mendell on the Roxbury–Jamaica Plain border, to name a few.
Caroline began devoting 5, 10, sometimes 30 hours a week to Neighborhood Parents for the Hurley School (NPHS), a parent-run nonprofit that raises funds and awareness for the school. “That was a deliberate decision for us,” says Caroline, who works part time as a project management consultant. “We felt that by giving back to the school, the entire community could benefit. There are a lot of parents who work full time or work more than one job, and they would love to be able to help with some projects, but it’s not something they’re able to do.” So far, NPHS has reopened a library at the Hurley, turned a former parking lot into a small soccer field, and helped fund music and afterschool programming, among other projects.
It’s a clear success story. While MCAS scores have bounced around in the past few years, the Hurley now has an accelerated learning program for students with more-developed reading skills, which is attracting high-achieving kids to the school. But there is a downside. “A lot of my work hours are pro bono,” Caroline says. “I’m pulling back. How much parent involvement should be needed in order for a school to succeed?” Nevertheless, for parents with the means and the time, working to improve underperforming schools, or those in the early stages of a turnaround, can be worthwhile. Right now, 10 Boston public schools, including the Dever, the Blackstone, and the Greenwood, are in the midst of a $22 million grant program that will allow them to extend school days and improve teacher training. They’re ripe for parental involvement.
Because the Hurley is K–8, Matt and Caroline don’t need to worry about high school just yet. “The Latin School is great, but it’s huge, and they only have so many slots,” Caroline says. “So I’ve decided to live in denial for a while. When the time comes, who knows? But one thing we know for sure is we’ll be in the city.”
If you think home-schooling is solely the province of evangelical Christians and back-to-the-landers, you’re overlooking a growing network of mainstream parents who believe they alone can provide the best education for their kids. The exact number is hard to pinpoint. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there were about 1.5 million home-schooled students nationwide in 2007, up from 850,000 in 1999. In 2004 Tammy Rosenblatt, owner of the Family Resource Center of New England, conducted her own survey of school superintendents, local home-school groups, and families, and estimated that about 20,000 children were being taught at home in Massachusetts, with the majority concentrated in the Boston area.
It’s a way of life for Kerry McDonald, a former corporate trainer turned stay-at-home mom, and her husband, Brian Roughan, principal at a consulting firm. They’ve lived in Cambridge for seven years and share a 1,300-square-foot condo with their three children, all under the age of five. “Prior to committing to home-schooling a couple of years ago, we reluctantly thought we would have to leave Cambridge for Brookline,” Kerry says. They knew Cambridge had some good elementary schools, but weren’t comfortable sending their kids there. Private schools were out, too.
Still, Kerry and Brian loved Cambridge. And home-schooling fit with their hands-on, attachment style of parenting. The more they considered the option and connected with other local home-schooling families, Kerry says, the more she and her husband became convinced of its inherent value, namely the freedom and flexibility to tailor their children’s education to their interests.
Now, they’re active in local home-school groups, getting together for trips to parks and museums. They take their kids to local classes in art, gymnastics, and Spanish — an approach they call “out-schooling.” And they turn daily activities, such as cooking and craft projects, into an opportunity for learning. As for what to teach, they consult the state’s curriculum guidelines for each age group, and the Massachusetts Home Learning Association has good advice on navigating potential legal issues. (Short answer: Most towns allow parents to home-school with little interference.) Kerry is chronicling their progress on her blog, City Kids Homeschooling.
The obvious cost to home-schooling? One parent has to stay in the house. “In many cases, families go without the second car, or without having brand-new everything, in order to be able to afford it,” explains Rosenblatt. But Kerry McDonald doesn’t see that as a sacrifice. The family is committed to its plan, and to Cambridge for the foreseeable future.
SCRIMP FOR PRIVATE SCHOOL TUITION
“On the surface, we’d be the last two people sending our kid to private school,” says Amy Branger. “It’s all these things you think you’re not going to do — you’re not going to become that parent. And then all of a sudden you are.”
Amy is a longtime Democratic politico, now a manager with the state’s Department of Transportation. Her husband, Andrew Klein, is an engineer and a former Boston Latin teacher. They live in a small condo in Charlestown. But when it came time for the couple to choose a pre-K for their daughter, Georgia, they picked the Advent School on Beacon Hill.
A big reason was Boston’s roughly 2,400 prekindergarten, or K1, slots, for which demand consistently outstrips supply. Rather than roll the dice on the lottery, Amy and Andrew decided to do preschool at the Advent. By the next year, “we’d just drunk the Kool-Aid,” Amy says. “Georgia’s class has 15 kids in it, with two full-time teachers. Her school has a full-time art teacher, a full-time music teacher, a full-time Spanish teacher, a science and math specialist. You just don’t get that elsewhere.”
All those resources come at a steep price, though: about $20,000 per year. Georgia’s monthly tuition is as much as the family’s mortgage payment. “She may have to pay for her own college,” Amy says. “But the thing is, you can’t pay for your own kindergarten. And these are the years that determine whether you like school.” Plus, the couple’s daughter is artsy and quirky — the sort of kid who sings and dances and does community theater. “We didn’t think she’d be happy in a building that wasn’t going to have that stuff in it.”
Another tradeoff has been deciding to have just one child. “It’s not the entire reason we stopped at one — we also love to travel,” says Amy. “But it’s definitely a factor. We’d need a bigger house if we had another kid, and we’d never be able to do private school for both.”
The Advent goes through only sixth grade, and Amy and Andrew are eyeing the Latin school or the Boston Arts Academy for high school. “She’s only in second grade, so who knows,” Amy says. “At this point we’re totally committed to the Advent until sixth grade. We’re here.”
PICK CATHOLIC SCHOOL, EVEN IF YOU’RE NOT CATHOLIC
Boston native Alda Witherspoon is a product of the public schools. Growing up in Codman Square in the ’60s and ’70s, she was sent to a magnet school (a public school with a specialized curriculum), setting her on the path that led her to become a classically trained singer working in Los Angeles. But a short visit home turned into a permanent return. “Never come back to Boston, because you get stuck,” she says with a laugh.
Today, Witherspoon works for the city as director of public and private partnerships in the Mayor’s Office of Arts, Tourism, and Special Events. Though she is a Baptist, she and her partner, Terell Harris, have chosen to send their 13-year-old son, Auston, to Pope John Paul II Catholic Academy — a pre-K-through-8 program with four campuses around Mattapan and Dorchester.
She’s not alone. According to Russ Wilson, regional director of Pope John Paul II, nearly 35 percent of the school’s students come from non-Catholic families. “They love the safety, the extracurriculars, the academics, and even the exposure to the faith,” he says. They also like the price, which starts at $6,000, with nearly 70 percent of families receiving some form of financial aid.
For many non-Catholic families choosing Catholic school, the religious aspect takes some getting used to. Panna and Raj Patel live in Watertown and send their five-year-old daughter to a Catholic school near Panna’s office in Cambridge. “At first, both of us were not happy with the idea of Thursday-morning Mass, but it is what it is,” Panna says. “To counteract this, we decided to send my daughter to Indian Hinduism school for two hours on Sundays.”
As for Alda Witherspoon, “I always wanted to have Auston in a religion-based school,” she says. “It’s just the sensibility of our family. But I have a broad view of religion. I think God is God is God, so it doesn’t matter to me in terms of the nuances of a doctrine. I just like the nurturing environment.”
IN THE END, THE BIGGEST PROBLEM with the whole city-versus-suburbs debate is that you can’t always predict where your child will flourish. Maybe your kid really will excel in one of those idyllic suburbs. But it happens to be true that not every child does. Of course, it’s also true that the lottery system in Boston and Cambridge takes the already overwhelming process of handing your kid off to the public school system and heaps on extra servings of stress and anxiety. “I don’t think there’s any way around that,” says Denise Snyder, senior director of enrollment and welcome services for BPS. “The reality is that [understanding Boston’s enrollment system] requires homework. Yes, you’re going to have to do the lottery, and you may not get your first choice. But if you are willing to put down five or more schools, about 90 percent of parents will get one of their top five.” Snyder raises another good point: Let’s say you go ahead and move out of town. What happens if your child doesn’t thrive at his or her neighborhood school? Where are you going to go then?
It’s something Stefan Lanfer thinks about as he looks to next year’s lottery. For now, there’s no talk of the suburbs, and he’s trusting in the power of being an involved parent. “So many parents are so focused on trying to get [their kids] into a great school. Not to diminish the importance of a quality school, but most of these kids are going to be fine. Kids with parents who are this committed, they’re going to be fine. They’re resilient.”