Letter to Editor: JP Parents Anxiously Await School Lottery

It's not just families who feel shafted by the Boston Public Schools lottery system. A single-child family from Jamaica Plain spent years building the Ohrenberger School, and now worries if the child can get into the Advanced Work Class.

The following is a letter to the editor written by JP resident Mayre Plunkett:

Too many highly qualified students coming from a population that is 70% free and reduced lunches and done without vast staff turnovers.

My son, our family, have been part of Roslindale's Ohrenberger School community for the past 5 years, and sadly we are getting ready to say our good-byes.

Six years ago we embarked on our Boston Public School odyssey. We did our homework to make informed decisions about our son’s education. We visited schools and joined listserves. We spoke to all of the West Zone K1 principals and narrowed down our choices. We didn’t care about the distance from home any school was, so long as our son was considered a person, not a data point. Based on the instant connection we felt with dynamic principals and the added bonus that both were in the beginning stages of transforming into K1-8 schools, we ranked the Ohrenberger first and the Higginson (in Roxbury) second going into the lottery. Neither of these schools were on anyone’s radar six years ago, and both had mediocre test scores and low popularity, but we looked at them as hidden jewels.

We were thrilled to get our spot at the Ohrenberger and dutifully rolled up our sleeves and got to work. The inspiring administration and great teachers were supported by a diverse family community that all wanted the same thing, to make the Ohrenberger a top school. I took on many roles within the parent council, reigniting the school’s charitable giving with Uniform Free Days that raised money for disaster victims and even organizing the “get well soon” cards the students sent to Mayor Menino last fall. I worked with former City Councilor John Tobin trying to find funding for popular programs when funding was dropped in favor of “turnaround” schools and have been working with City Councilor Matt O’Malley to get a crosswalk in front of the Ohrenberger.

After Steve Zrike left, the strong leadership continued with Eileen Nash, who completed the K-8 goal with the Beethoven becoming the feeder school, K1-2, to the Ohrenberger grades 3-8. And the strong leadership continues now under the leadership of co-principals Naomi Krakow and Ed Puliafico. The West Zone community took note and we have gone from a wait list of 10 in 2008 to 130+ in 2012. All of this success happened not by firing teachers or flooding the school with corporate money, but through the teamwork of administrators, teachers, and parents.

But our collective success seems to have taken its toll on my family. With great administrators comes highly motivated teachers and these extraordinary teachers have produced 33 third grade students accepted into the city’s AWC program. Sadly, only 25 of these students can stay in the program at the Ohrenberger. To make matters worse, we must revisit the lottery to get one of these 

25 slots. And while many thought this would be a straight-up lottery, since we are all already in the school together, instead it turns out to be (1) Sibling Preference Walk Zone, (2) Sibling Preference, (3) 50% Walk Zone and finally, (4) the rest of us. Have I mentioned the Ohrenberger is in West Roxbury and we live in Jamaica Plain with our one child? When I called Court Street and asked about why walk zone was relevant when there are only 4 AWC programs in the West Zone, I was told, “... because that’s the way we do the lottery.” Not because it’s logical, not because it’s fair. Just because it’s their unconsidered habit. So our son will be at a disadvantage because he is an only child living barely 3 miles away. Isn’t it ironic that families who have a built-in community of multiple children have the edge, while children like ours who have to find it through their school community are shut out?

Clearly our chances of getting a seat are slim. We now must uproot our son and our lives. Six other families will go through this as well. Of the 33 accepted, many are from the highly involved parents who have, like us, helped build the school and strengthen the community. These kids from the Ohrenberger have been friends since they were 4 and the kids from the Beethoven, since they were 5. So many in this city have it wrong. You don’t find community just because you live on a street, you create community. We did it, and now we’re being punished for it.

We are trying hard to go into this next lottery with the same focus and determination as we did the first time around. We know that the three other AWC programs in our zone are all highly regarded and because our son swims and plays sports in leagues that take participants from the various neighborhoods, we’ll keep our fingers crossed that he’ll fall in with an old friend. And if he doesn’t, he now knows that a community is something you build, not simply live in., and he has the skills to do it. And throughout this heart-wrenching process, we will quietly keep repeating, “BPS is not for the weak.” 

Mayre Plunkett


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