While school officials and parents here were debating how to assign students to Boston’s public schools, a lanky young man was quietly observing their public proceedings.
He quickly saw the Rubik’s Cube-like puzzle: How could the school system design a plan that would send children to a good school, close to their homes — in a city that had too few good schools? And could that plan also ensure that students from poor neighborhoods had the same chance of attending good schools as those from more affluent neighborhoods?
The current system, for kindergarten through eighth grade, divides the city into three large zones, a holdover from its traumatic experience in the 1970s with forced busing to end desegregation. Today, many students are still bused far from home, yet many disadvantaged students are still in lower-performing schools.
Over the last year, a 27-member advisory committee pored over its options and weighed competing proposals, but became hopelessly tangled up as it considered proposals that created more zones to fix the inequality.
The young man, Peng Shi, a 24-year-old doctoral student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, began asking questions and talking to parents. Then he made a suggestion: why not drop the idea of zones altogether?
For Boston, it was a breakthrough moment. Mr. Shi made some suggestions about how to assign the almost 40,000 students to the 96 schools without using zones and his proposal quickly rose to the top of a pile of about 10 others.
It went through several iterations. The final one gives families a list of at least six schools starting with the two closest high-quality schools, then the next two closest of at least medium quality.
Last month, after a year of study and more than 70 community meetings, the advisory committee voted overwhelmingly to recommend that the Boston School Committee adopt Mr. Shi’s model. The school committee was planning to vote on it Wednesday night.
Not everyone is happy with the plan. Critics say it perpetuates inequities. But if it passes, the plan would represent the most significant change in the city’s student assignment system in nearly a quarter-century, finally dismantling the remnants of the notorious busing plan.