Friday, December 17, 1999
METCO program benefits Concord, Carlisle and Boston students
The Concord Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunities (METCO) program recently held its annual dessert and discussion to allow families and community members to speak about their experiences with the program. The METCO program began 35 years ago to give minority students from Greater Boston the opportunity to attend schools in Eastern Massachusetts and to help desegregate suburban schools. The Concord Public Schools and Concord-Carlisle Regional High School have participated in the program since 1967.
Family council wins award
At the December 8 gathering, the Concord-Carlisle Cooperating Family Council, a group of local families who support the METCO program, was praised for recently receiving The Climate for Freedom Award from the Concord-Carlisle Human Rights Council. The award is given every two years to a group that promotes a climate of respect for people. The Cooperating Family Council provides local support to METCO students, such as inviting them to their homes after school when there is an evening event, providing transportation to Boston when they cannot take the bus, or inviting students to stay overnight at their homes. Concord resident Norman Beecher said it is beneficial for Concord to have METCO. "It's just as important for Concord students as it is for Boston students," he said.
This year, the Concord METCO program has 89 students at the high school and 103 students in Concord's K-8 schools. The program runs on an empty seat policy, whereby METCO students are assigned to available seats in classes at the high school and in Concord's K-8 classrooms. METCO students can be assigned to a class if there are seats available without having to add a new teacher, according to Concord METCO coordinator Norma Dinnall. This year there were no available spots at the middle school in Concord because of a large student population. The program tries to maintain about 90 METCO students at the high school, a number determined by the available space at the high school and by funding received from the state as reimbursement. An expansion of METCO is not feasible without an increase in state spending for the program.
The Carlisle elementary and middle schools are not part of the METCO district. However, Dinnall said, "It would be lovely to have a METCO program in Carlisle. Some students only see racial diversity when they enter high school at 13 or 14 years old."
Schools that participate in METCO have received level funding from the state without an increase in a number of years. Towns that participate in METCO must supplement the state aid received for the program with funds from their local school budgets. Gerry Missal, director of financial services for Concord Schools said the state provides level funding with the expectation that the same number of students will attend each year.
The Racial Imbalance Act, enacted in 1965, provides the source for METCO funding. The state reimbursed the regional school district $238,048 this year for METCO students attending CCHS and reimbursed Concord $351,210 for students attending school in the K-8 classrooms. The CCHS reimbursement is used for the students' transportation costs, METCO coordinator and staff salaries, and reimbursement to the regional school budget.
Dr. Kharis McLaughlin, president of METCO's board of directors, described the program as benevolent and said it allows people to come together who would not normally meet or know each other. "It's more important than ever for students to have access to a good education and for students to share ideas and work together," she said. McLaughlin said the program has survived for 35 years, but in the last decade there have been reductions in the number of METCO students attending school.
Currently, 3,100 METCO students attend suburban schools in Eastern Massachusetts, with approximately 150 placed in the Springfield suburbs. However, there are now 16,000-17,000 minority students on the waiting list. In a telephone interview, associate director of METCO John Shandorf, said that the program has an affirmative action requirement to ensure that METCO reflects the student population in the Boston Public Schools of 60 percent African-American, 30 percent Hispanic and ten percent Asian students.
METCO receives 1,800 new applications per year with a placement rate of just 420-450 students a year. The average wait for an African-American student for placement is five years if the student is enrolled as close to their birth date as possible. The wait is shorter for Hispanic students and much less for Asian students because there are fewer of them on the waiting list, Shandorf said. Fifty-three percent of placements go to students in the beginning elementary grades of K, 1 and 2, and children are more difficult to place as they get older because there are fewer places available in upper grades, he said. Most METCO children have siblings who attend the Boston Public Schools because the program is no longer able to give preference to siblings. Once children are placed, Shandorf encourages parents to take full advantage of the program and tells them they must participate in suburban town activities, such as holiday concerts and other events so their child will be part of the community. "They must be a Boston parent, a Concord Parent and a METCO parent who advocates for their children," he said.
Parent Cheryl Obele of Roxbury said that all of the six children in her family were able to attend school in Concord, including two who are now at the Alcott School and CCHS. Obele said she felt it was so important that her children be involved in METCO, that she had stopped at the METCO office on the way home from the hospital to sign up her new baby and fill out forms. McLaughlin, who is also a METCO parent whose children had attended school in Lincoln, said she started even earlier, entering the name "Baby McLaughlin" before the baby was born.
The State Board of Education may now have a majority of members against racial preference programs in the public schools, according to Shandorf. He said critics of the program tend to look at the academic performance of students, but supporters of METCO know that while academics are important, they are not the primary reason for the success of the program. He cites benefits such as reducing the racial imbalance of primarily white suburban schools, improving relations among the communities and allowing minority children to take advantage of the resources available in the suburbs. There have been 6,200 graduates since the program started and 92 percent of METCO alumni say they plan to go on to college, similar to other suburban high school students.
The Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) tests and other pressures have school districts concerned about their schools' academic performance. Shandorf said if a study were funded to look at performance, METCO students would not do exceptionally well compared to resident district students who are often ahead of their grade level. However, he believes that METCO students would do better than their siblings and peers who stay in the Boston Public Schools. As an advocate for the students, he encourages districts to give students a chance and believes that, with the help of parents and the support of the school, most students can do well.
This year, there was an orientation day for new METCO students at CCHS on Thompson Island. Outward Bound activities fostered leadership skills and forged bonds among students. In August, an orientation for new METCO parents and students is typically held at CCHS with students attending mini-courses during the day. Recently, students had a Sundae Brunch, with METCO students inviting others for pizza and sundaes during lunchtime. Events are also held for families with an annual welcome-back picnic in the fall in Concord and a pot- luck supper in Boston in the spring. Monthly parent meetings are held at METCO in Boston. At the end of the year, an award program is held in Concord to recognize student achievements during the year.
McLaughlin said that the program needs to be supported at the state level and asked community members to send a message of support to Senator Susan Fargo. METCO is planning a Lobby Day at the State House in February.
Buses make it work
Two buses transport students to CCHS leaving Boston around 6:15 a.m. After school, buses depart for Boston at 2:10 p.m., 3:10 p.m. and 5:15 p.m. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, another late bus leaves at 7:30 p.m. to allow students to participate in after-school activities, athletics and other events. Dinnall said she hopes that next year there will be a 7:30 p.m. bus daily. Boston parents arrived at the December 8 meeting on a bus that provided transportation to and from the Concord event.
© 1999 The Carlisle Mosquito