School officials are proposing drastic changes to the in-district school assignment policy, and one School Committee member says it's long overdue.
"In my opinion, we have waited too long to change this policy," School Committee member Janet Crane said. "We have a policy that is badly outdated. ... We have known for a long time we are providing an unequal educational opportunity (across the district).
"The School Committee has all agreed that things are certainly not equitable in the way the schools are set up now, and the major issue is a socioeconomic one," she said.
For years, Salem parents have been able to choose which school they would like their child to attend, even if it's across town from where they live. Younger children are given enrollment priority so they can attend the same school as their siblings.
Crane was among the three-member policy subcommittee that voted Monday night to recommend a revised school choice policy to the full School Committee.
The committee will see the new policy, which would base school assignment on neighborhood, for the first time on March 19.
Through four meetings, the policy subcommittee discussed and revised a "limited choice" school assignment policy proposed by Superintendent Stephen Russell.
It's one of numerous changes the district is considering since Bentley Elementary, Salem's school with the highest percentage of low-income students, was designated as a Level 4 "underperforming" school by state authorities in November.
The limited choice policy restricts students to the two schools that are geographically closest to their home address. If parents want a child to attend a school outside of those two, they would have to apply for school choice and would be accepted only if space were available and their child could help balance demographics at the choice school.
The goal is to have each of Salem's schools within 10 percent of the demographic profile of the city, Crane said.
"We do not want a concentration, which is the current situation," Crane said. "We have two high-poverty schools (Bentley and Carlton elementary schools)."
" ... (The new policy) is not going to make everybody happy, but we can't do that. We've got to look out for all students," she said.
Student demographics varies wildly among Salem's schools, based on the numbers receiving free and reduced lunch. As of this fall, Witchcraft Heights and Saltonstall schools each have 38 percent low-income students, while Bentley has 73 percent and Carlton has close to 72 percent.
The revised in-district school choice policy is proposed to begin with kindergartners and students new to the district in the 2012-2013 school year. Students currently enrolled at choice schools will be allowed to stay.
However, younger students won't be allowed to enroll at a choice school with their older siblings after this school year.
Also, if a student withdraws from a choice school or is absent for more than 30 days without medical documentation, they will not be allowed to return to the choice school.
"(The new policy) would gradually disperse children of all economic backgrounds so the school populations would more closely mirror each other," Crane said.
Kindergarten registration begins this month.
Crane said she feels the new school choice policy could be re-examined after the first few years.
"After the first year, we will have a better idea of whether the implementation of the policy is what we want," she said. "If it's not helping to create what we want to create, we should change it."
Staff writer Bethany Bray can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @SalemNewsBB.