Navigating the Schools System: How It Works

By Amy Traverso | Boston Magazine |

Here’s how Boston’s byzantine school-assignment process works: The city is divided into three zones: North, East, and West. When it comes to elementary and middle schools, your options are limited to the schools in the zone where you live, plus a handful of citywide pilot and charter schools. One exception: If you’re near the border of two different zones, you can request any school within a one-mile radius (one and a half miles for middle school).

The zones vary in size: the North Zone, for example, goes all the way from East Boston to Allston/Brighton to the South End. That means a lot of choices for you, but it also means that if you don’t get any of your nearby favorites, your child could end up traveling by bus for an hour or so each way.

For this reason, BPS recommends doing your research (taking school tours, attending parent Q&A sessions, and using its Countdown to Kindergarten website to request at least five schools, ranked in order of preference. There’s no limit to the number of picks you can make.

But what if you really have your heart set on just one or two schools? The assignment consists of the following factors, listed below in order of importance:

1. Siblings: If you already have a child in a given school, the next one to come along will have a much better chance of getting in.
2. Geography: Fifty percent of all seats are reserved for students within a one- to two-mile “walk zone” of any given school. One of the best things you can do to get your child into a school is to live near it.
3. Your order of preference: If you list a school as your top pick, that will be factored into your ultimate ranking.
4. Application date: Always apply within the earliest round that is available to you. Applying a round late is a huge factor in not getting the school you want. To find out what round you qualify for and the dates when it accepts applications, go to
5. Randomness: This is the most angst-provoking piece of the puzzle. Once students are ranked according to priority (by the above factors), they are given a random number which determines who is in and who is out. And there’s not much you can do about that.

If your child doesn’t get into the school you’ve had your heart set on, there’s always the waitlist. In fact, you may be put on up to three waitlists. Here’s how it works: Let’s say you live in the West Zone and list the Curley, the Lyndon, and the Kilmer in order as your top three choices. If you don’t get into any of them when assignments are announced in March, you’ll immediately be put on the waitlist for all three. If you get into, say, your third choice of the Kilmer, but not the Lyndon or the Curley, you’ll be put on the waitlist for the first two choices. And so on.

The BPS Family Resource Center in your area can inform you of your standing on each list — whether you’re third in line or number 150 for a particular school. Your waitlist ranking is determined, again, by siblings, geography, stated order of preference, application date, and a random number.

If spots become available at a school, students are automatically assigned based on their waitlist number. When classes begin in September and students have been enrolled in schools, BPS staff continues to place waitlisted students in their choice schools, but only if parents authorize the move. Once January rolls around, however, the waitlist is retired and the process starts all over again.

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