Equity in Education: A closer look at the METCO program

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BOSTON — Every morning across the state, 3,100 Boston kids are waking up and commuting for more than an hour on buses and trains to go to school in 33 suburbs, in an effort to help integrate them.

“They’re going to say it was a sacrifice. It wasn’t a rosy experience," says METCO CEO Milly Arbaje-Thomas.

"Because of the discrimination and the racism they encounter, and the lack of belonging. But they will tell you, ‘I know how to navigate the white world. I’ve spent my whole life this so now when I go out to a job out there I feel like I belong and no one can shut that door on me’,”  Arbaje-Thomas added.

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The METCO program started in 1966 as a voluntary busing program to provide Boston students of color access better schools and resources. Fifty-two years later, the four-year graduation rate for students in METCO is roughly 30% higher than students in Boston public and charter schools, according to a Harvard researcher. The college enrollment rate was also 30% higher.

HIGH PRICE FOR PROGRESS 

But many feel the price for progress has been high. Boston 25 News has been documenting incidents of racism aimed at METCO students.  Wayland High METCO students tell Boston 25 News reporter Crystal Haynes long commutes are the least of their issues.

Sophomore Kayla Simpson says hearing racial slurs in the hallways or in class is not uncommon.

“The use of the n-word," Simpson said. Junior Shawn Bernier added, "They would just bring up the n-word … and I would always say that’s just not okay."

METCO is a $23 million Massachusetts budget line item.  Districts apply to give their students a lesson in the value of diversity.

Wayland School Superintendent Arthur Unobskey who says some of those lessons are hard won.

“We do need to continue to grow in our ability to sort of understand what they bring to the table and nurturing that," Unobskey said. "I think that means providing more opportunity for professional development or time to work on these issues than we do. We need to figure that out.”

Newton Public Schools have the largest number of METCO students in the state at 431. They have implemented a number of innovative programs including professional development for faculty, and culturally responsive teaching.

"We do a lot of peer leadership work around issues of bias, " Superintendent Dr. David Fleishman, explained. “At our middle schools now we have classes and sessions on micro-aggression. Which is something people face in a particularly white environment.”

CHALLENGING THE PROGRAM’S FUTURE 

But after five decades and with a $1.6 billion school budget designed to target student achievement and programs, Boston city leaders are challenging METCO’s mission for a modern-day Boston.

Boston city council education chair, Anissa Essaibi-George, told Boston 25 News "a handful of kids in a suburban school is not going to diversify that school experience. When we create more diversified communities, that creates more diversified schools."

Two years into her job as METCO CEO, Milly Arbaje-Thomas says she's ready to provide other solutions. For the first time, the program’s application process is now an online lottery, making the selection process more transparent.

METCO leaders say they're going to provide diversity training for teachers and administrators.

“I want the city of Boston to understand that desegregation is necessary," explains Arbaje-Thomas. "The isolation in the suburbs when it comes to race is a problem. And METCO is providing a solution to that problem in a very small way.”

COMMITMENT TO THE FUTURE 

But even if nothing changes in the METCO program, students who spoke to Boston 25 News say they've gained an invaluable skill.

“People aren’t always going to like you. People aren’t going to always view things the same way as you. You’re not going to see eye to eye, " says Simpson. "But learning how to survive in a community like where you’re the minority, it’s a really important life skill.”

“I Think about how it makes me stronger as a person to have these types of disadvantages and always rise above it," says Bernier.

Boston 25 News also spoke with three METCO alumni for their perspective now that they’re out of the program and in the workforce.  Check out their interview here:

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