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KIndergarteners participate in a graduation ceremony in June at The Peabody School. (Photo: Nesson Marshall)

KIndergarteners participate in a graduation ceremony in June at The Peabody School. (Photo: Nesson Marshall)

It’s that time of year again, when the Family Resource Center manages the registration of many of next year’s kindergarten classes. On Tuesday the School Committee voted to amend last year’s controlled choice policy by loosening the amount by which individual schools can vary their balance between paid-lunch families and free- and reduced-lunch families – a dividing line between high-income and low-income households – from plus or minus 5 percent to plus or minus 9 percent. The change was a compromise necessary to assign all of the families in the January lottery a seat this month. The original proposal from the administration last month was plus or minus 13 percent, but after feedback from the committee, it was massaged to the plus or minus 9 percent level with some small changes.

Understanding the problem

The district’s chief operating officer, James Maloney, gave a lengthy description of the problem through a memo to the committee and a presentation at the meeting. The issues are:

bullet-gray-smallThe plus or minus 5 percent band was the lowest ever proposed, so it was known going in it was a challenge.

bullet-gray-smallAn increase in January kindergarten enrollment by 11 percent, or 58 students, over last year.

bullet-gray-smallA resulting shortage of kindergarten classrooms.

bullet-gray-smallJanuary kindergarten enrollment is always disproportionately made up of paid-lunch families, making it difficult to know how many filled classrooms will be at the end of the process.

bullet-gray-smallThe knowledge that by next September, there will be significant withdrawals from among the kindergarten registrants, particularly among paid-lunch families; they just don’t know which families will withdraw from which school assignments.

This year, by the end of the January lottery, the number of registered kindergarteners combined with the current number of junior kindergarten students exceeded the amount of kindergarten seats by 27 students. The school department added two kindergarten classrooms on the west side of the city, as directed by last year’s Controlled Choice Policy (because more students are on the west side, but more seats are on the east side), in the Baldwin and Haggerty schools. This created enough seats for now, with seven seats left over. (Haggerty’s kindergarten class is capped at 14 to allow for pre-assigned seats for special education students.)

That might seem to solve the problem for now, but that does not take into account the distribution of paid-lunch and free- and reduced-lunch families over the classrooms. With a band set at plus or minus 5 percent, the maximum level of paid lunch kids is 62 percent of any given classroom (based on the Oct. 1 K-5 citywide average of 57 percent that is paid-lunch). That translates to 12 paid-lunch children per kindergarten classroom. Even after adding the two new kindergarten classrooms, that would leave 47 paid-lunch students without available seats without creating four more classrooms (which involves finding the funds and space).

Expanding the band

Maloney feels comfortable he can avoid this by making a few changes that he seems to hope are in fact somewhat temporary. With a plus or minus 9 percent band this year, the number of unseated students drops to 24. His experience has shown that, while he can expect another 120 or so more registrants by the start of school next year, he is also expecting to see 45 to 50 kindergarten registrants and an additional number of current junior kindergarten students pull out by September. His proposed solution was to expand the band to plus-or-minus 9 percent and allow all students a school assignment immediately by slightly “overbooking” some schools – raising the cap of 50 kindergarten students. He seemed confident attrition and management of wait lists will bring the schools to appropriate class size. When all of the registrants are in, the school department may need to bite the bullet and open more classrooms.

The recommendation was passed unanimously, and the second reading was waived so the Family Resource Center could send out letters to January registrants immediately. The 24 “extra” families, who have the lowest (worst) lottery numbers, will get mandatory assignments along with other families who did not get one of their three choices.

Balancing schools: The overriding issue

Working through the numbers during and before the Tuesday meeting clearly helped committee members come to a place where they could vote to pass the change. But many expressed worry that this might continue the slippery slope of extending socioeconomic status imbalance within and across schools.

“Is this utopian goal of diverse schools more or less a dream?” committee member Richard Harding asked.

Maloney responded first by saying that even at plus or minus 9 percent it is the narrowest band the city has used since the start of Controlled Choice. He also pointed out that some other important elements of the Controlled Choice Policy are helping. They include separating the junior kindergarten and kindergarten enrollment process, so each class can be balanced individually. Another is setting the socioeconomic status balance goals by K-5 levels, rather than K-8 levels, which historically more accurately mirror kindergarten entry socioeconomic status levels.

Perhaps the change he valued most is the creation of different approaches for assigning first- through eighth-graders vs. kindergarteners. This is a subtle but important change. Kindergarten socioeconomic status balance levels were and continue to be determined by individual kindergarten classroom “capacity”: that is, a certain portion of seats in each school, plus or minus the given band, would be reserved for either paid-lunch or free- and reduced-lunch students. Previously, that system applied to all grades. Therefore, for example, if a fourth-grade paid-lunch student left a school, that seat could be filled by another paid-lunch student even if that fourth grade had become quite heavily paid-lunch through attrition. This meant an imbalanced school could continue to get more imbalanced. The policy change means that grades above kindergarten are “balanced by enrollment” – in this case, there are “excess” paid-lunch students in that fourth grade and the vacancy can be filled only by a free- or reduced-lunch student to balance the enrollment.

Maloney hopes that each year they can continue to squeeze down on the band. He was confident that if the enrollment had not risen so dramatically, this year they could have accomplished enrollment within a plus or minus 5 percent band.

Mayor David Maher, perhaps speaking from the experience of leading the City Council, warned that Maloney may not want to rely too heavily on hopes that kindergarten enrollment will plateau. “We literally have thousands of housing units coming on board in the city in the near future. While right now many of them may not be families, those are exactly the people who will wind up having small children.” This will affect both space issues and school balance issues, he said.

This post was updated March 6, 2014, to correct an editorial error and clarify that bands are plus or minus, meaning a band of plus or minus 5 percent is actually a 10 percent band.