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Rights Groups Frustrated With Boston Schools

CAMBRIDGE, MA -  It is with great regret that our organizations announce our decision to end formal cooperation with the Boston Public Schools (“BPS”) as the district contemplates whether to design and implement a new student assignment policy. We have reached this decision based on what many perceive as BPS’s lack of meaningful engagement with the community during this process.

In September of 2009, BPS was awarded federal grant funding to engage local parents, students, educators and other constituents in a series of community dialogues to “create a student assignment plan which ensures equitable access to high quality educational services for all students in the City, within racially and ethnically diverse schools and classrooms.”1 BPS’s grant concept was distinct from other Technical Assistance for Student Assignment Plans (“TASAP”) grant proposals because it placed the diversity of voices and perspectives of Boston parents, educators and community members at the center of the student assignment design process. The grant award of $241,680 was to be used, among other things, to seek assistance and expertise from student assignment specialists, demographers, community relations experts, facility and other planners, curriculum specialists, school districts with comparable and relevant experience, academics and researchers, non-profit organizations, civil rights organizations and members of the private sector. The goal was to ensure that district educators and the surrounding community had the tools to design an acceptable student assignment plan. The proposed process appeared to be a departure from what transpired during BPS’s attempted passage of the “Five Zone Plan,” which was strongly opposed by community members earlier in 2009.
BPS’s decision to apply for this grant, the grant concept itself and the subsequent Department of Education (“DOE”) award gave our organizations much hope. As this process has evolved, however, we have developed serious concerns about the pace and vigor of implementation. We also have concerns with the lack of transparency and open communication with the public about how this funding will be used. To our knowledge, there has been little to no public explanation about the purpose of the TASAP grant (namely, that it is specifically designed to aid school districts in the development of student assignment policies that avoid racial isolation and facilitate student diversity). Community members have been largely left on their own to seek out this information. In the absence of clear and purposeful communication, some people have since formed incorrect assumptions about the purpose and use of this sizeable grant.

On March 27, 2010, our organizations hosted The Golden Opportunity Summit (“the Summit”). The idea of the Summit predated the TASAP award. Following the postponement of the School Committee’s vote on student assignment, our organizations felt that the Summit would be a constructive way to contribute. We viewed the Summit as a chance to offer information and resources to BPS, to the public at large and to other interested organizations and individuals. Overall, we were pleased with the presentations and the information presented at the Summit, but we feel BPS missed an opportunity to clearly and effectively communicate the purpose of the TASAP grant and describe the manner by which community members might get involved going forward.
To be sure, a student assignment policy will not address all of the challenges facing the Boston Public Schools and the communities of which the schools are a part. However, if well-designed and accompanied by an open, inviting process of communication and deliberation, a new student assignment policy could at least open up lines of communication and be a promising beginning toward addressing longstanding challenges. We believe that anything short of full engagement around issues of equity and diversity will not serve the community well.
As we end our formal involvement, our organizations remain hopeful about the potential of this student assignment design process. We continue to believe that Boston can be a national leader on these issues, and hope that the TASAP process will help illuminate the path. Accordingly, we offer the attached recommendations, which we believe can guide the district toward the development of a fair, equitable student assignment plan and invite longer-term exploration of challenges that require more than just the commitment of local educators, but that call for a steadfast commitment from government officials and policymakers at the local, state and federal level; parents and community leaders; philanthropists and others who have concern for the children of Boston. In addition to these recommendations, we encourage stakeholders to take advantage of the student assignment resources that are housed on the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute’s website at http://www.charleshamiltonhouston.org/Events/Event.aspx?id=100118 and http://www.charleshamiltonhouston.org/News/Item.aspx?id=100088.
In 2005, Professor Charles J. Ogletree, Jr. established the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice (CHHIRJ) at Harvard Law School. The Institute honors and continues the work of one of the great civil rights lawyers of the twentieth century. Litigator, scholar and teacher, Charles Hamilton Houston dedicated his life to using the law as a tool to reverse the unjust consequences of racial discrimination. CHHIRJ is committed to marshalling the resources of Harvard and beyond to continue Houston’s unfinished work.

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