The balance of students signing up for kindergarten at the Amigos School is to get a change after a vote taken Tuesday by the School Committee. (Photo: Mark Jaquith)

Almost three hours was spent Tuesday giving a kindergarten admission policy affecting a handful of people a second, surprise vote, only to see the School Committee pass it 4-3, the same as two weeks ago. The public will likely face more of the same, committee member Richard Harding said, starting when a subcommittee tackles a comprehensive school choice system next week, and it will ultimately affect every new parent in the city.

“I never would have thought this would have this much attention, and this is the tip of the iceberg on issues about controlled choice,” Harding said. “This is going to get so ugly … controlled choice may be the most complex issue that an urban school faces in this time, because there are so many aspects to it that are interconnected. If you move one thing one way, it affects something the other way. It’s a weird balance.”

In this case, the committee split on an effort to act immediately to bring socioeconomic and linguistic balance to kindergarten at the Amigos School, which is based on dual-language immersion and has tilted in recent years to admit mostly English-speaking kids and very few poorer kids. The committee voted two weeks ago for a fix that would move poorer families up on the waiting list, despite the fact a school-choice lottery had already been run, but found that — because this was considered a policy change — they had to give it a second reading, providing an opportunity for two attempted amendments by committee members and more than an hour’s worth of public comment. Each of the amendments failed 4-3.

“I can’t support changing the rules after the fact,” said committee vice chairman Fred Fantini, explaining his vote against the main motion. “This controlled choice committee will deal with the issue by the next running of the lottery. It will be comprehensive and it will deal with every school instead of just looking at one school.”

“I’m disappointed that we couldn’t find a compromise. This makes me very sad,” said member Alice Turkel, who also voted against the policy tweak. Mayor Henrietta Davis was the third opponent.

Turkel’s proposed compromise, though, put off dealing with socioeconomic balance until it was taken up by the controlled choice subcommittee, to be led by her and Fantini, that is only scheduled to start its work next week. A proposed compromise by Davis suggested putting off the issue until fall of 2012, unless a comprehensive policy was in place before then.

But proposing the tweak to the Amigos wait list was always explained by its backers, Harding and Patty Nolan, as “a short-term solution to a long-term problem” — a problem years in the making that some in the audience and on the committee now described as a “crisis.”

It was also Fantini and Turkel who, with then mayor David Maher, killed an effort by Harding, Nolan and Marc McGovern to talk about Amigos’ controlled choice policy 10 months ago in a brute display of parliamentary tricks that shocked committee and audience members alike. As part of those votes, Fantini, Turkel and Maher put a halt to a controlled choice task force led by Harding and Nolan.

Parents cry foul

The vote Tuesday followed a flood of angry parents crying foul to the committee, telling them it was unfair to tweak the Amigos School kindergarten wait list after the rules were set. Although the changes were to bring socioeconomic balance to the school, parents argued that the changes were a betrayal resulting in uncertainty that could drive people out of the district.

“Young Cambridge families are freaked out by the idea you can change the rules after the fact,” one parent said.

“Unless the system is transparent, it’s very hard to want to stay in Cambridge as opposed to moving out to the suburbs,” another said.

A group of Amigos parents, though, backed the change.

Amigos is the only school without rules trying to balance richer, middle-class and poor students in a class, and parents Bertha Pantoja and Penn Loh noted that by now the socioeconomic imbalance extends up through the fifth grade, with Loh saying his son is in a first-grade class with only two kids out of 44 getting free or reduced lunches, and “that has an impact on the classroom itself.”

To complaints that the wait lists should be taken as immutable, Loh pointed to a section of the Cambridge schools website asking “How are wait list positions determined?” He read aloud:

School restructuring, special education needs, “No Child Left Behind” transfers and gender balancing are examples of other compelling needs that might take precedence and affect the position of students on the wait list.

Some supporters’ remarks staked out the ability to walk away from Cambridge’s public schools, as some opponents threatened, as a reason the wait list change could be important. As parent Helen Bryant said:

“The process of registering is weighted very heavily in favor of those with resources. By ‘those with resources’ I mean they’re usually white, usually educated and English-speaking and with the ability to devote considerable time and effort to be the first at the [Family Resource Center] and if needed to incessantly lobby for their choices, including throwing the weight of their employer, etc. behind them. The same individuals often possess options for educating their children outside the public school system. Conversely, the process is weighted heavily against those without these resources. And by ‘those without resources’ I mean usually black or brown, usually low-income, those who must work more than one job to afford life in this city, or those of us who must navigate the system in a language other than English, wait for an evening registration to be available or venture to the registration site by public transportation, perhaps with their children in tow. Opportunities for alternative education do not exist for them.

“Where was the outrage when an additional kindergarten was added to Amigos after registration? Why didn’t we hear from you when the English-language percentage was allowed to go up to 80 percent?” Bryant asked opponents of the change. “Both of these changes further imbalanced our school and occurred after the lottery.”

This post was updated April 4, 2012, to say it was Fantini and Turkel who had acted against an earlier effort to address Amigos controlled choice issues.

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