Boston schools: from one magnet to many

Boston schools, declared desegregated by the United States Court of Appeals for the First District last September, are on the road to local control. School Superintendent Laval Wilson has appointed a special panel to revise assignment policies, effective next September. The plan is expected to discard most of the current system, which consists of a combination of neighborhood districts, based on computer-based demographics of the city, and one citywide magnet-school district.

Although no details have been announced, the policy is likely to include a revised curriculum that would convert each middle (junior high) school and high school into a magnet-type school specializing in a specific academic area such as science, fine arts, language, or business. The citywide magnet-school district would be dropped.

Students might then be assigned to a magnet school closer to home, which might or might not require busing. Public hearings are to be conducted throughout the city before plans are approved.

``My goal is to produce quality education for Boston's 58,000 public school students,'' Dr. Wilson says. ``At the same time we shall run a desegregated school system, without busing if possible, but most likely with a minimum of busing.'' Wilson, who has been superintendent of Boston schools since July 31, 1985, is currently being considered for the post of chancellor (superintendent) of New York City's huge school system.

The Boston plan could set a pattern for public-school desegregation that would avoid the violence, anger, and police patrols that Boston endured during most of its 13 years under federal court control.

``Our new assignment policy will no longer involve complicated coding systems and constant reassignment of students, a process that often confuses parents,'' Wilson says. ``Parents will know where their children will attend school in future years. We'll offer a varied curriculum that will prepare our high school graduates either for an entry-level job or for higher education.''

``We feel that magnet schools throughout the system will guarantee quality education,'' says Thelma R. Moore, magnet school district superintendent who will head the new assignment panel. She came to Boston after working in a voluntary school desegregation program involving St. Louis and its suburban communities.

``Parents will be able to help their children select the best school that fits their needs,'' she says. ``At the same time schools will offer racial balance, seats for everyone.''

Her advisory group, assisted by consultants, is expected to conduct seminars, meetings, open discussions, and administrative hearings throughout Boston.

The assignment program will be Wilson's first major policy change since US District Court Judge W.Arthur Garrity Jr. withdrew from active supervision of the city's school system earlier this year. Judge Garrity had overseen Boston's schools since he ruled in 1974 that they were segregated.

The assignment plan is a part of the superintendent's overhaul of the whole system under a 16-point Boston Education Plan he announced last fall.

The school committee has generally been supportive of Wilson's proposals and backs 13 of the 16 parts.

``It's time for us to produce a good-faith modification of current policies that will make positive changes on assigning pupils, changes that are best for the city and its young people,'' says John Nucci, the president of the Boston School Committee, in announcing his support for the assignment plan.

``There will be no return to the past,'' Wilson says of a system that because of white flight has shrunk from 92,000 students in 1974-75 to 58,000 this year.

Boston's 13-year experience under Judge Garrity has set the basic pattern of school desegregation in urban communities, including Seattle, Wash., which is revamping its voluntary desegregation program which it began 10 years ago. Seattle's student enrollment was down to 44,000 last spring, from 90,000 in 1977.

``All the things I predicted have happened,'' says Ellen Roe, mother of six and a Seattle school board member for all 10 years of its desegregation effort. ``It has been very expensive. White flight has cut back enrollment and hurt the city.''

Boston is one of a number of major urban school systems that are or have been under federal court orders to desegregate. Other cities likely to face post-desegregation changes soon are Los Angeles; San Francisco; Pasadena, Calif.; Chicago; Milwaukee; Indianapolis; St. Louis; Kansas City, Mo.; Topeka, Kan.; Little Rock, Ark.; Charlotte, N.C.; Atlanta; St. Petersburg, Fla.; Dallas; Buffalo, N.Y.; and Wilmington, Del.

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