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Originally published Sunday, October 11, 2009 at 4:00 PM

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Proposed assignment plan gives Seattle Public Schools needed predictability

Seattle Public School's proposed new boundaries and simplified assignment plan offer the district a second chance to live up to the expectations of families.

FAMILIES chafe at the Seattle Public Schools' wild variability on student assignments. Proposed new school boundaries and a simplified assignment plan offer promising change.

A complex maze that used to determine what school students attended has been streamlined into an uncomplicated rule: students' addresses determine their school.

Students entering kindergarten, sixth grade and ninth grade in the 2010-11 year will be assigned to a school near their home. Students in other grades will remain at their current schools, an appropriate grandfathering that minimizes disruptions.

Many families won't notice a difference. For others, this plan is a huge change. Families living on Queen Anne and in Magnolia have long asked for a neighborhood high school so students weren't bused across the city. They're being assigned to one of the best: Ballard High School.

This shift is the correct route forward. After the district ended bussing for integration purposes, it veered into an expensive and convoluted open choice system. Families could choose any school they wanted but the result was a lack of predictability and stability. Most troubling, the system weighed heavily against less savvy families who were unable to navigate the application process.

Some school choice will remain. Uneven quality among the city's public schools requires it. Families can apply to a select number of "option" schools which will include some kindergarten through 8th grades and those formerly called alternative schools. At high schools, 10 percent of the seats will be available on a lottery basis to students who live outside the boundaries.

The redrawn map is a huge puzzle that represents a work in progress. The School Board will request tweaks and answers to what appear as anomalies. For example, why is the upper tip of the Green Lake neighborhood assigned to Ballard High School when those students could walk to Roosevelt?

The success of this plan depends on how quickly struggling schools are turned around. Cleveland High School is slated to become a math and science magnet for students districtwide. Chief Sealth and Ingraham High schools both have International Baccalaureate programs.

Smart duplication of successful programs is embedded in the new plan. The John Stanford International School and its dual language instruction in Spanish and Japanese is a success story now at Concord and Beacon Hill International School.

Another bright spot in the plan is its emphasis on educational continuity. Students in elementary school international programs ought to have a dependable pathway forward. Placing an international program at Denny Middle School will do this. Talk of doing the same at Mercer Middle School is promising.

Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson must place an emphasis on high achievers. Advanced learning programs are planned for every elementary school and one program for gifted students, Spectrum will soon be in every middle school once it is up and running at Madison Middle School. Left to address are reports of inconsistent quality of the programs.

An appropriate concern under a neighborhood-based assignment plan is how children in low-income neighborhoods will fare. The school board talked about giving preference for high school seats to students from low-income families, but opted to wait and see how the new plan will affect access. This should remain a concern.

Enrollment is on the rise. The district will reopen five schools, including two closed only a few years ago.

These are all issues the public can expect to be heard on. There are a series of community meetings leading up to the Nov. 18 school board vote. A helpful and new tool for families is the district's Web-based program that displays school assignments based on an address. Families can discover now what used to take months.

This is exactly the kind of predictable, easy to use — and family friendly — tool that the school district's primary customers have been looking for.

School leaders should not blow this chance to re-engage the community.

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