ILLUSTRATION BY SHEA JUSTICE FOR BINJ
For more than 50 years, Metco has stood as a hallmark effort to address racial disparities in education. But for the progressive civil rights program to keep pace with the national dialogue around race, inequality, and white supremacy, stakeholders say it’s time to reexamine and recommit to Massachusetts’ once-radical program.
It had only been three months.
It was 2014, and Steve Desrosiers had barely settled into his new job when he was unexpectedly tasked with leading a high school assembly to address the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, after the fatal shooting of teenager Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson that summer.
Desrosiers knew taking the position as Metco director for the Lincoln-Sudbury regional school system would be a challenge, and he was eager to help bring the best out of the program, which since 1966 has bused minority students from Boston and Springfield to schools in nearby suburban communities. Kids brave long rides and early mornings—among other, less tangible hardships—to enjoy the benefits of a public education in a quiet town; in return, they increase racial diversity in the overwhelmingly white student bodies of the 37 suburban school districts that participate.
As director, Desrosiers knew he would be responsible for the successful implementation of the Metco program in his district. He was ready to provide guidance, strategize the closing of achievement gaps, and advocate for the program’s uniquely positioned students. The official workload was significant, but Desrosiers quickly learned that for those affiliated with the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity, or Metco, expectations often reach beyond grades and test scores.
The school access and desegregation program traces its origins to the activism of the 1960s civil rights movement, when Boston parents coordinated with those in neighboring suburbs to force the hand of their government following its failure to provide adequate solutions to the inequalities laid out in the U.S. Supreme Court’s seismic 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling.
Metco’s then-radical founding principles held that all students were better served by attending more diverse schools and that inner-city youth deserved greater access to school choice, in part out of recognition of the historical impacts of racial oppression. Nearly a decade before outrage over efforts to balance the racial dynamic of city “neighborhood” schools through forced busing would irreparably scar Boston’s reputation, it was a proactive and elective measure taken by parents who sought to redress the legacy of systemic inequality through targeted means.
The nation’s second-longest-running voluntary desegregation program, Metco has graduated tens of thousands of mostly minority city residents through suburban Massachusetts schools—which means that hundreds of thousands of largely white resident students have graduated alongside them. But to hear many Boston participants tell it, for all the progressive ideals about the merits of opportunity and inclusion that fuel Metco, its weaknesses manifest in the vastly different expectations the student sets face, and the outsized responsibility to adjust and accommodate shouldered by those braving the outbound bus ride.
Hired the summer of 2014, Desrosiers was still new at Lincoln-Sudbury when he was asked to untangle the racial and political tensions Ferguson represented for the gathered student body. In that moment, he came to fully realize that his duties would encompass more than helping a small group of students navigate their educational arrangement. His role could also call for him to captain conversations about the ways race continues to shape modern American society for students barely primed for the dialogue. He says the implied directive was clear: Figure it out.
“[School administrators] brought me up there in an auditorium of all the kids, by myself, while [they] waited for it to be safe before [they] came in,” Desrosiers says, directing his comments at school leadership. Like so many people involved with Metco over the years, he was black and facing white expectations with no playbook.
“I can’t reconcile something that this nation has not worked adequately enough to reconcile.”
Playing the Game
Metco success stories pepper communities around the Boston area and the nation. NPR journalist and All Things Considered host Audie Cornish is an alum. So is Marilyn Mosby, state’s attorney for the City of Baltimore, Maryland, who at the time of her election was the youngest chief prosecutor for any major U.S. city, and who went on to level felony charges against six police officers for their role in the death of Freddie Gray. Boston’s arts community also abounds with former Metco students, including RCA-signed rapper Cousin Stizz, acclaimed guitarist and Berklee College of Music associate professor Jeffrey Lockhart, JAM’N 94.5 DJ and rapper Money Mav, and the DJ-brother duo SuperSmashBroz.
Whatever path they take, Metco graduates have something in common: an education that demanded a particular kind of perseverance. That was certainly the case for Catherine Morris. The Roxbury-raised 2003 Lincoln-Sudbury graduate began the program in second grade.
“[My mother] would ask me every year, ‘Is this something you want to continue?’” Morris recalls. “She let me have that freedom to make that decision.”
Academically motivated, Morris saw the upside of avoiding the distractions she might face at Boston Public Schools. But her new suburban district had distractions of its own.
“My first encounter with racism in Metco was literally my first day in second grade,” she says. “This kid Chaz randomly came up to me, kicked me in the knee, spit in my face, and called me the n-word. First day!”
Morris encountered her first ally soon after as a Lincoln-resident student named Jessica Apsler intervened on her behalf. It was kismet.
“We just became the best of friends,” Morris says. “We were [born] only a day apart, in the same year. Just happened to be that we’re both Capricorns.” The Apslers became her host family, an arrangement in which resident parents open their homes to Metco students in case before- or after-school activities should warrant the need to stay beyond when Boston buses are available.
Today, Morris runs the Boston Art & Music Soul Festival, or BAMS Fest Inc., a 501c3 nonprofit dedicated to increasing visibility and opportunity for Boston’s creative communities of color through live performance and professional development.
“The work that I do now with BAMS is really trying to break down racial and cultural barriers for artists of color across Greater Boston,” Morris explains.
In some ways, her work began in the Lincoln-Sudbury schools, where Morris learned to fiercely advocate for herself and her Metco peers. Backed by active parents and a supportive host family, she frequently challenged what she saw as regressive elements of the school’s culture, like African American history lessons that put a dehumanizing focus on slavery, or officials trying to force Metco students out of their usual on-campus hangout. In one case, Morris brought attention to a middle school teacher who refused to call on Metco students in class; this action, she says, led to the instructor’s dismissal.
Morris’ commute from Boston out to Lincoln-Sudbury additionally brought with it occasional ribbing from fellow Metco students, some of whom would tease her for her manner of speaking. “What I realized is that when I’m home I’m myself, when I get on the bus I’m a different kid, when I get to school I’m a different kid,” she says all these years later.
The ability to code-switch—to adjust communication patterns depending on social circumstances and context—is a trait Metco students are put in position to hone. Code-switching to the culturally dominant language of whiteness can be a powerful tool for social, educational, and economic attainment. However, vacillating between dialects can also present unique challenges to feelings of identity integrity and community cohesion.
Morris’ parents had dueling philosophies on the matter. Her father owned a local painting and wallpapering business, where her mother handled administrative duties. Catherine’s mother would warmly field calls from clients and dispatch her husband to homes throughout Jamaica Plain, Medford, and Milton. When he showed up ready to work, though, customers were occasionally surprised at who they found at their door.
“Because my mother did code-switching, she wouldn’t sound like she was a black woman,” Morris says. “My dad didn’t give a shit. He really didn’t. He was not going to change his character [for] the sake of being anything. My mom, on the other hand, realized that this is a game and you have to play the game.”
By sixth grade, Morris had learned to play the game. After seeing the way sports made it easier for many of her male Metco peers to acclimate, she took steps to participate in arts-focused extracurriculars like theater, which allowed her to grow more comfortable in both public speaking and her own code-recognition skills. Morris went on to found dance groups and take on leadership roles at the school’s radio station. When a space did not exist for her, she created one.
“At that point, you’ve figured out where you belong, where you don’t belong, how you have to act, how you have to be, the character you have to get into to some degree,” she says. “The kind of language you have to speak. It’s a lot of work. It’s like acting.” Morris eventually enrolled at a historically black university, she says, to “get my identity back.”
Many of Morris’ experiences echo the findings of a 2001 book, The Other Boston Busing Story, a doctoral study of the Metco program by Brandeis University professor Susan Eaton. Now the director of Brandeis’s Sillerman Center for the Advancement of Philanthropy at the Heller School for Social Policy, Eaton specializes in research on social justice and minority and immigration inclusion in education and policy.
Eaton’s book shares insights from dozens of former Metco students who reflected on their experience with the program from the vantage point of adulthood. She found that alums frequently cited distressing issues like internalized white standards of beauty or implicit assimilationist pressure to be more like their white classmates. Many also felt that they were viewed as “charity cases” by receiving districts that they believed did not fully embrace the program’s symbiotic mission. While nearly every former Metco student Eaton spoke with characterized their time in the suburbs as fraught, they largely remained champions of the program’s value—not only for the quality of the education they received, but for the way the experience broadened what they saw as possible in their lives. Eaton’s research found that 87 percent of respondents would do it all over again or send their own children through the program.
Part of that response may be related to something else that Morris took away from her time in the Lincoln-Sudbury district. “I think my experience as a Metco student has absolutely prepared me to deal with the rules of crazy white people,” she says. “I can predict behavior at a faster rate. It’s something that a lot of Metco kids walk away [with]. It’s just paying attention.”
Morris adds, “Whatever behaviors that I experience at work I can totally laugh at, just like, ‘I met your kind when I was in eighth grade. I saw you coming.’”
But Morris didn’t always find humor in navigating white environments, which she notes in an especially troubling memory: “The schools would have these meetings about the cost of each Metco student, which would piss us off. It was almost like being on auction, which we hated. And the town’s paying for it, and I always felt like, Well, are we a detriment or are we an asset? Which one is it?”
On the Basis of Race
Metco’s origins are a testament to the power of community organizing. The groundwork began in 1964, when parents from the predominantly black Boston neighborhoods of Roxbury and Dorchester, dissatisfied by the overcrowded and dilapidated state of their children’s schools, leveraged a law that permitted city students to transfer to any school in the system with room to seat them. It was an inventive use of a loophole that anxious white parents had previously exploited to get their children out of mostly black schools. After the hard-fought grassroots effort found success moving kids into better-resourced schools within the city, organizers began working with suburban districts to secure seats and strategies to expand the program beyond city limits on a voluntary basis.
The 1965 passage of the state’s Racial Imbalance Act established a legal framework for Metco, and a grant by the Carnegie Foundation and the U.S. Office of Education provided initial funding. Given a mission to expand educational opportunities, increase diversity, and reduce racial isolation, the program would use voluntary interdistrict busing to address the separate and unequal ills of the region’s “de facto” brand of segregation and discrimination, in which common prejudicial practices around matters such as housing and education upheld inequality more than explicit “de jure” rule of law.
In the 1965 state-commissioned report Because It Is Right—Educationally, which paved the way for the passage of the RIA, Massachusetts education commissioner Owen Kiernan addressed de facto segregation and historic white advantage, writing, “That racial imbalance was not contrived with malice does not free us of the obligation to end it.”
By today’s standards, some might argue that Kiernan’s characterization was overly charitable. Nevertheless, Metco went on to redress that imbalance and open a reconciliation process. In the intervening decades, though, some of the legal underpinnings that made desegregation efforts like Metco possible shifted. In Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court case involving voluntary desegregation efforts, a split vote by the Roberts court brought new stipulations to the methods schools could use to avoid racial isolation.
The 4-1-4 split decision saw frequent swing voter Justice Anthony Kennedy ultimately join conservative Chief Justice John Roberts’ plurality in the ruling, but with qualifications: where Roberts advocated for a kind of color-blind constitutional ruling, Kennedy held that schools may continue to pursue methods to avoid racial isolation, so long as placement is dictated by more than just racial classifications. In his part, Roberts summed up his feelings on the unique burdens shouldered by minorities thusly: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”
While the senior-most judge in the land ruled that minorities could not count on public education to remedy their historic disadvantage, across the country race remains a persistently divisive organizing principle. America can’t even come to terms on whether racial discrimination is an issue—a 2016 study by the Pew Research Center found that 70 percent of African Americans believe discrimination causes black households to struggle to get ahead, compared to only 36 percent of whites who believe the same.
Housing segregation is a major factor in public education in Massachusetts. A 2016 Federal Reserve of Boston report, like other similar studies, suggests that while metro Boston has become more diverse in total since 1980—going from 90 percent white to under 75 percent by 2010—the residential neighborhoods remain stubbornly divided, with the Hub’s Hispanic and Asian populations being more segregated than the national average, and black-white segregation remaining the region’s highest.
White students are also often disproportionately concentrated. According to recent state education numbers, they make up 61 percent of Massachusetts public and charter school enrollment, yet over half of the schools in the Commonwealth have student bodies that are at least 80 percent white, and nearly a quarter of the schools are at least 90 percent white.
The Roberts court’s Seattle ruling impacted the overarching framework of Metco, forcing officials to be circumspect in how they execute the program and describe its intentions. But the setback did not totally disrupt Metco’s legal basis. While racial balance is still among its goals, there are no racial litmus tests for enrollment in the program. Under guidelines subsequently written by the civil rights divisions of the Obama administration’s justice and education departments, intra-district transfers between regions of differing racial compositions are permissible, so long as race is not the explicit consideration of the process.
The Metco mission always had its skeptics. Soon after Arlington, Braintree, Brookline, Lexington, Lincoln, Newton, and Wellesley joined as the program’s first 1966 wave of receiving partner districts, wary Wellesley parents organized a group called Operation Challenge Metco, an outfit that sought to keep the community out of the nascent program, claiming that it represented an encroachment upon the town’s autonomy.
“Any student of modern history knows that totalitarian regimes have education as a prime target,” warned a memo issued by the group that first year. “It is only necessary to review the efforts of such regimes in this area to recognize this truth.”
Resistant to what they characterized as “sociological experiments conducted by the [Wellesley] School Committee in the name of education,” Operation Challenge Metco parents contended that the program would only inspire more creeping influence from big government. The effort failed, and Wellesley remains a program participant today. Still, concern over one issue that Metco opponents have always latched on to, the program’s financial impact, has persisted, and it sharpens whenever education costs rise and budgets face shortfalls.
Mark Andersen, who raised his children in Lexington, has long been wary of out-of-community busing. “I went to parochial school, so I was bused out of my community,” he says. “As someone who experienced busing firsthand, in principle I’m not really a big believer.” A graduate of Harvard University, Case Western Reserve, and MIT, Andersen maintains that the decision was a mistake on his parents’ part, adding, “I believe that social dislocation is a big deal.”
Andersen self-identifies as liberal “in the U.S. national spectrum,” but to the right of his left-leaning Lexington community, whose public schools boast the motto “The Historic Past Meets the Progressive Future.” His belief in educational opportunity is outweighed by his wariness of the program’s financing.
“For a long time … I felt that the state should better fund the Metco program,” he says. “After having done the research, I realized that I had a different view than I had 20 years ago. Twenty years ago I thought money grew on trees.”
Metco’s funding has evolved over time and today is paid for through two means—the state distributes direct grants “to eliminate racial imbalance,” and students enrolled in receiving districts are counted towards those towns’ foundation budget, a component of the complex formula used to direct state public education resources known as Chapter 70 funding.
Chapter 70 funding, because it is calculated through the property and income wealth of communities, can vary widely, but the foundation budget element of its calculus is meant to grow commensurate with inflation. And keeping adequate pace with that growth has been an issue for Metco in the twenty-first century.
Metco grants are distributed by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). A chunk goes to transportation costs, and the rest, calculated through a per-pupil allotment, goes to schools for use in program support, like paying for Metco directors and coordinators in each district. But a 2015 report by the conservative Pioneer Institute held that, due to failure to sufficiently account for inflation, real funding through Metco’s grants had fallen more than 20 percent in the previous decade, at an average decrease of 2.4 percent each year.
The 2018 projected state grant budget for the 3,262 students enrolled in Metco’s 37 participating districts was $19.3 million, with a per-pupil allotment of $4,089 and roughly $6 million going towards transportation costs. As public school funding goes, it is a relatively small dispensation, especially for a program that in 2018 boasted a 8,485-person waitlist. By contrast, charter schools were budgeted for $80.5 million in reimbursements from the Commonwealth in 2018.
The other element of Metco’s fundings—state grants—are part of the discretionary legislative budget, not the firm Chapter 70 formula that funds public schools. This means they are subject to the whim of mid-year cuts from the governor’s office, which can result in scrambles to pay for essential program elements like after-school buses and support staff.
This discretionary distinction is crucial. Without state support that increases commensurately with the price of education, the financial burden of covering the program’s cost falls to the receiving communities. Cliff Chuang, who oversees Metco’s funding as senior associate commissioner at DESE, says his department is very aware of the funding challenges for districts. “Transportation costs in particular put pressure on local budgets,” he says. “Because the grant funding has not kept pace with costs, we are well aware that resource constraints put more of the burden on host districts to ensure program success.”
After sitting on town committees faced with expanding enrollment challenges, Andersen, a financial analyst, took it upon himself to investigate Metco’s cost to Lexington. What he came to believe was that due to the crowding of the town’s schools, the program’s effective cost was outsized. To hear him tell it, the 243 Metco students enrolled in Lexington for 2016–17 put the town’s taxpayers on the hook for $4.2 million in operating costs for the program for the year, with an additional $1.4 million in projected capital expenses.
After concluding his research, he presented his findings to his town’s school committee in late 2016 and suggested program exit strategies.
But Andersen found his arguments to be unpopular and unconvincing to the Lexington community, whose projected education budget for 2017 was $97 million. Outspoken liberals in particular resented that he put a program they were proud of in his budgetary crosshairs, and conservatives were too few in number to sway the debate.
Andersen, who is white, also came to believe that due to the shifting racial demographics of Lexington’s schools, the community should reevaluate its commitment to what has historically been a program to redress segregation. According to state data, Lexington has experienced a dramatic shift in the racial composition of its schools in recent years, notably with Asian and Asian American students rising from 15 percent of enrollment in 2001–02 to 37 percent in 2016–17. White students now make up just under 50 percent of Lexington’s enrollment, which Andersen believes changes the program’s legal standing under the Racial Imbalance Act.
“The reality [is] that people were solving a different problem then,” Andersen says. “And the problem that Lexington was solving in the late sixties was, you know, a true civil rights housing crisis, which is, there were no minority students in the Lexington school population.” Today, he argues, Lexington has a different diversity problem, where due to the influx of internationally born community members, schools must offer English-as-a-second-language courses. He believes the community isn’t taking the racial difficulties Asian minorities face seriously enough while putting an undue focus on the needs of those enrolled through Metco. “There’s a view that more could be done to serve Boston students.”
Andersen also suspects that the 2007 Supreme Court ruling cements Metco as an unconstitutional and illegal program. However, Metco is only a de facto racial desegregation effort, not a de jure one. While the vast majority of Metco students are nonwhite, white students living in Boston are permitted to apply for the program. In 2016–17, 32 students enrolled in the Metco program statewide were white, about 1 percent, with 77 more individuals on the waitlist.
Andersen is also troubled that Metco students have not been admitted through a lottery system or through economic vetting, but rather through a largely first-come, first-served process administered by METCO, Inc., the Roxbury-based nonprofit overseen by DESE that has managed enrollment and placement since the program’s inception. Indeed, the idea that the Metco program exists to serve the economically disadvantaged is a persistent, if groundless, concept in suburban enclaves. In reality, there is no economic consideration for the application process, and a 2011 Pioneer Institute report found that only half of Metco students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
For all his criticisms, Andersen echoes some of the same sentiments held by Metco alums when he says that for most of its history, the Lexington community “brought in the students, checked the box that they had done something good, and buried the outcomes and what was happening to those children over on the side.” As he sees it, the lack of information from METCO, Inc. about the profile of families that are accepted into the program undermines its ability to properly judge student outcomes. “I don’t think [Metco] has any proven outcomes, to be honest,” he says, suggesting a selection bias. “I think that the Metco program directs its resources to those African Americans who have the most advantages.”
While the 97 percent graduation rate of Metco’s most recent cohort bests both the state average (87 percent) as well as that of the receiving districts (95 percent), and is 30 percent higher than the rates of Boston and Springfield, there is nevertheless an ongoing debate about the program’s impact, even in state offices. DESE’s Cliff Chuang sees limits to how the program has been evaluated. “Metco students have generally done well in terms of [standardized test] MCAS performance and graduation rates,” he wrote in an email response to questions for this story. “However, this has not been studied in a way that controls for the characteristics of students who choose to participate in Metco.” Such characteristics might include economic standing, family dynamics, or relatives with experience in the program.
Dr. Susan Eaton, the former research director of Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, has a firmer outlook. “It seems to me,” she says, based on the available and admittedly imperfect data, “it does benefit the individual people who go through the Metco program.”
Some of those benefits are more easily quantified than others. In Eaton’s research, many former Metco students felt they had benefited from the favorable optics the program afforded them. Even if the schooling they received in their new districts may have been comparable to what they would have experienced elsewhere, the perception that their education was suburban and thereby upscale carried weight later in life. Eaton also found that many former students felt that their experiences left them feeling uniquely equipped to act as a bridge between worlds, exhausting as that task can be.
As one of Eaton’s anonymous subjects in The Other Boston Busing Story attests, “You’re going along with that strength in you, not full of this obsession that a lot of blacks have, like they can’t cope in a white place [because] they feel so on stage all the time. I don’t have that. I did.”
In response to such testimonials, Andersen says putting a premium on such tools strikes him as “a very white, liberal interpretation of success.” “If you want to trade some more money for alienation, that’s a choice you can make,” he says. “[Metco] doesn’t really expose our kids to kids who are disadvantaged. … I’m not interested, as a taxpayer, in contributing to a program that takes people who otherwise are going to do well and shuffles them around.”
The Metco program is less centralized than one might imagine. With the funds provided by DESE at their disposal, districts are left to hire and oversee Metco directors and coordinators for their schools independently. METCO, Inc. then provides outside support services to those in the network via parent orientations, student tutoring, and additional counseling through their Boston offices.
Metco host districts and METCO, Inc. are not formally affiliated, so regional program directors and coordinators are paid by and report to their respective school administrators, not a higher Metco chain of command. This can lead to large variance in the ways programs are run, district to district. The positions are also non-union, making the individuals holding those jobs uniquely vulnerable among public school educators.
At Lincoln-Sudbury, Steve Desrosiers was confronted with all manner of challenges as Metco director: teachers with boundary issues looking to “parent” Metco students; complaints of persistent microaggressions from classmates, educators, and administrators; drop-offs in student performance potentially related to matters at home; funding cuts that cost after-school programs; and a swell of overtly bigoted behavior on the part of some resident students.
Desrosiers had come to Lincoln-Sudbury after eight years working for Boston Public Schools, where he spent four years running the city’s No Child Left Behind program and one year with the Office of Engagement, which led him to develop a passion for attacking the achievement gap between minority and non-minority students through hands-on approaches with families. As Desrosiers, who immigrated to the U.S. from Haiti at age 10, came to see it, Metco liaisons are in positions not so dissimilar from Metco students—they are usually among the few minority educators at their schools and thereby must navigate communication and expectation gaps similar to those faced by students.
“That one Metco director walks on thin ice every day,” Desrosiers says. “You’re between two cultures. … You’re always between stakeholders who expect a lot from you, who expect all these insights, but haven’t provided any support for you to be safe as you do that work.”
Tensions encroach from all sides. He continues, “The teachers are coming at you. The school leaders are coming at you. The parents are coming at you.”
At Lincoln-Sudbury, Desrosiers refined the district’s vision for program positions and roles, incorporated parents into students’ study strategies, and aimed to turn the Metco office into an encouraging, laptop-providing study hall. Seeking to model his work there after the successes that Lexington’s retired superintendent Paul Ash and Metco director Barbara Hamilton found a decade prior, Desrosiers prioritized attacking the achievement gap and invited relevant authors and academics to speak to students, trying to capitalize on the region’s university-based brainpower.
Closing the achievement gap is among the most persistent challenges in American education. According to MacArthur “genius grant” winner Nikole Hannah-Jones, who has reported extensively on segregation in schools nationwide, the achievement gap between white and black students was narrowest in 1988, at the peak of school integration. “As soon as we start to see the segregation increasing again, that achievement gap increases,” she told NPR early in 2017. “We’ve actually never gotten back to that low point we were at when schools were at their most integrated.”
Data show that over the last 20 years, as urban segregation in Massachusetts has grown, so has the achievement gap. To address that in his district, Desrosiers found allies in parents as well as teachers who pushed for books and curricula that provided common social context through which resident and Metco students could relate, and in general attempted to mitigate the kinds of isolation that can harm marginalized children in educational settings. He came to believe Metco is overdue for a tune-up.
“When this started out in the sixties,” Desrosiers says, “there wasn’t a whole bunch of discussion around differentiation in the classroom, different learning styles.” But as broader conversations around the district’s per-student and specialized education costs grow louder, Desrosiers says there is a shift in the conviction of district-side stakeholders. “That’s where the discussion of Metco [escalates] like boom,” he says. “Because now you’re not just paying for their seat, you’re paying for the extra services they need.”
Desrosiers took to advocating for teacher professional development via cultural competency training. District teachers largely hail from cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds that are similar to those that predominate in the places they work, he notes. No matter how well-intentioned they are, their cultural blind spots are passed down to the new generation of students.
“If the adults at your high school weren’t comfortable themselves crossing over and talking to the black teacher, or talking to the group of teachers that didn’t share their ideas that they had, how are they going to teach you?” Desrosiers wonders.
“Metco is forcing a conversation into districts that otherwise wouldn’t have to have the conversation,” he says. “We’re not good at having the conversation around race, which is why folks who are courageous enough to even attempt it have to see themselves as teachers who are leading a bunch of bratty kids gently across difficult terrain.” And when challenges fraught with racial or social justice dynamics arise, he says, “You’ve got to help them walk through it, because they don’t know how to.”
For Desrosiers, championing Metco came to mean championing the fight that brought it to life. “Here’s a great program that’s tied to all the civil rights traditions of our country—abolitionism, civil rights,” he says. “It’s knowing the history.”
After growing up in Roxbury and Dorchester, Mike Mascoll enrolled in the Lexington school system as a third grader. As a popular captain of the basketball team who went on to Boston College, Mike was the consummate Metco success story. But his formative experiences left the 1983 Lexington High School grad reckoning with a strong sense of contradiction.
Settling into his adult life forced Mascoll to reexamine his relationship with his adopted hometown. Would he want to raise a family of his own there? “My thoughts on that kind of changed through the years, because I realized there’s only a handful of folks … who made an effort to keep in touch,” he says. He saw a line between those willing to maintain relationships into adulthood and the greater number who did not.
“You have to ask yourself, what was the deal?” he says. “At the end of graduation you shake hands and say, Hey, that was a great 12 years hanging out with you. I’ll see you around, in the next life.”
Mascoll poured his experiences into the 2016 documentary On the Line: Where Sacrifice Begins, a penetrative history of Metco told largely by the parents and organizers who fought for it. Mascoll’s film also takes the opportunity to inspect the modern state of the program, charting its progress—and stagnation—since his graduation.
Given her academic exploration of the Metco experience, Dr. Susan Eaton, who is featured in On the Line, is occasionally invited to participating districts to offer feedback. But by her observation, little has changed or improved since the publication of her book over 15 years ago. “It’s just frustrating that there hasn’t been more progress,” she says.
“There are still these huge, underlying problems in many suburban districts in which the students who come from Boston don’t feel welcome, don’t feel like a full part of the school, are subject to racial bias, microaggressions,” Eaton says. “Problems that exist in our larger society obviously filter down into the schools, even in the more liberal, progressive places like Newton, Lincoln, and Concord.”
Mascoll sought to connect with his old Lexington-resident classmates as part of the project, mining them for insights about how Metco impacts the experience of white students. Released by New Day Films, the doc showcases both the pride and the frustrations shared by countless Metco alums. Mascoll hopes for it to be adopted by host districts as an instructional tool not only to jump-start neglected conversations, but also to push Metco’s ambitions forward.
Through his film work, Mascoll came to see the ability to adapt to socially extreme settings as a common takeaway among Metco alums. In his corporate career in telecommunications, he grew to regularly rely on the kind of inter-cultural fluency many Metco students develop through their school routines.
Despite knowing how to coexist in white spaces (“I’ve been doing it my whole damn life,” he says), Mascoll notes that he hasn’t been capable of changing structures or environments. As he attempted to climb corporate ladders, he continued to be stymied by what he saw as limited access. “I can’t fully put my finger on it, but it still tastes like that whole You know, we checked the box, we’ve got one or two in here. We’re good. Thanks, but no thanks,” he says. He’s come to view the failure to develop fluency in resident students, and to reshape attitudes and behaviors, as the program’s “biggest miss.”
“There’s obviously more white folks in the suburbs who had an opportunity to kind of have that duality as well, and learn,” he says. “And the bulk of them missed the boat. They didn’t take advantage.”
“It’s like anything,” Mascoll adds. “If it’s not mutually beneficial, then why the heck would people do it in the first place?”
“White people need to be talked to,” says Dr. Eaton, who agrees that Metco districts should place greater emphasis on increasing the cultural fluency of suburban students. “There need to be conversations had by white people who have come to see the way in which white culture and white supremacy pervade and inhibit everything … and ruin things.”
Mascoll has grown tired of the word diversity. “It’s not a black-and-white thing anymore,” the filmmaker says. He subtitled his documentary Where Sacrifice Begins to invoke the comforts he and his peers surrendered to build a more promising future, individually and collectively. The real questions are Where should the sacrifice end? And When should that burden be shared?
“It’s about understanding other people’s culture,” Mascoll says, “and having enough respect for it.”
‘Now You See’
Metco was never envisioned as a social cure-all. Early organizers saw it as a stopgap measure to relieve pressure on city schools until the suburbs themselves became less segregated. But those days of harmonious integration never arrived.
Meanwhile, racial outlooks have proven to be nearly as persistent a challenge as segregation itself. According to a 2016 study from the Pew Research Center, 88 percent of black respondents believe the country needs to continue making changes in order to have equal rights, compared to only 53 percent of whites. And while roughly 40 percent of both blacks and whites claim to believe the country will eventually make the changes needed to achieve equal rights, 43 percent of black Americans believe those changes will never come, compared to only 11 percent of whites who share that outlook.
Imperfect though it is, Metco does present unique opportunities to shape how kids think about their own whiteness. It did for me, anyway.
I grew up in Concord, a historic, well-to-do town about a half-hour outside of Cambridge and a Metco host district since even my father’s time in the schools. It was a community that proudly championed diversity’s virtue, but it wasn’t just having cross-cultural friendships that shaped my views on the primal role of race in our society—rather, my formative experiences didn’t come until those relationships brought me to my peers’ home turf.
One weeknight, roughly 25 years ago, I went to my best friend’s house for a sleepover. As elementary schoolers, Derrek Meade and I were already accustomed to school-night slumber parties, because years earlier, after striking up a friendship on our own, our mothers agreed that we would serve as Derrek’s host family. Derrek had been a Metco student in Concord since first grade, and we had become fast friends—both coming from single-parent households, both with pronounced affinities for the kinds of escapism offered by comic books and video games. But this sleepover would be different for us: It would be my first time visiting his home.
It was a radically new experience for us both. “I remember thinking I wasn’t sure how people were going to take someone visiting on the bus that didn’t live where we were from,” he tells me.
Our ride out to Boston was uneventful, but the return to school the next day made an impression strong enough that I have carried it through my adulthood.
Derrek lived in Boston’s Hyde Park neighborhood, so the following morning we woke up at an hour I did not yet know existed. By 6:30 am, we were outside the Franklin Park Zoo, blearily filing onto our big yellow bus for the ride out to Concord.
“I was a little worried, ’cause in the morning everybody is tired [and] in a bad mood ’cause it’s too early and they don’t want to be talking to no one,” Derrek, who now works in data security, recalls. “I knew some people knew you, but some didn’t. Basically, I just wanted you to be comfortable.”
He was right to be concerned. As we boarded, we both realized there was no seat available for us to share. Kids that age are into their routines, sitting in the same seats with the same partners. Or they’d splay out, catching up on vital sleep before their long days as commuting students. After Derrek found himself a seat, I was alone.
I was confronted by a sudden and unavoidable sense that I was out of place. In the dark of that pre-dawn morning, unsure where I was “supposed” to sit, I was newly aware that mine was the only white face in the crowd. And for the first time, I had a budding sense of what that meant.
I wasn’t too young to understand the basic principles of race in our society. And I wasn’t surprised to be the only white kid there—I had ridden with the same kids out to the city after school the day before, and counted many of them as friends. But the foreign morning routine had shaken my comfort level. Without my confidant to lean on, those few moments before I found a seat triggered a twinge of panic.
“I kind of looked at it like, ‘Now you get to see what I felt being around a lot of white people for the first time in school,’” Derrek says. He was right. We had a new way to relate to one another. My moment of social isolation was passing, but everyone who rode that bus put themselves in positions where they possibly felt out of place all day, every day.
“All eyes are on you like you’re some type of exhibit,” Derrek says.
‘It Ultimately Comes Down to Everything’
“Government basically created racial segregation and now we are living with the consequences,” Dr. Eaton says. “Segregation is what we’ve been given. Metco is saying, in some ways, No, we don’t want that, we’re going to do something different. A line.”
In many ways, it’s a line that only the young people with the long bus rides are asked to walk. White students aren’t expected to modulate themselves around classmates or teachers to the extent that their bused peers are. And for the considerable scrutiny of Metco outcomes, graduation rates, and achievement gaps, there has been no real measurement of whether those receiving districts are hitting benchmarks for inclusivity or social awareness.
A longtime school teacher in a Metco district, who declined to be identified by name in fear of potential retribution, sees both potential and limitations in the program. Black, he finds the Boston suburbs more racially segregated than other parts of the country he has lived in, and he lauds his district for embracing the program, providing teachers with dedicated anti-bias training, and surveying minority instructors for their insights. In dealing with Metco students, this school goes to great lengths “to make sure that from sunup to sundown you understand that this is your school system, you are not visiting in this school system,” he explains. “That is something that is communicated to all staff, that these are not ‘Boston kids,’ these are not ‘Metco kids.’ These are our kids and this is their school system.”
Still, the teacher says he’s often disappointed to see cycles of racialized behavior carry on. “When you look at kids who maybe played together in elementary school, and then you get to middle school and you see that table of black kids eating lunch together, it’s like, self-segregation begins. … You see black kids performing blackness and white kids performing whiteness at that age level.”
Dr. Eaton charges that all areas must be more active and deliberate in their anti-racism efforts if they hope to quell underlying issues in a meaningful way. Despite the challenges, she remains a Metco believer and hopes to see the program scaled up. In 2011, she co-authored a paper published by the Pioneer Institute in collaboration with the Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School. Titled “METCO Merits More,” the paper advocated for the program’s expansion and targeted efforts to both address students’ concerns and increase awareness in host communities.
“Really I think it ultimately comes down to everything,” Eaton says. “The structure of the school, the way that you phrase things—everything. It’s almost like it really has to be a transformation of how people see things.” In her ideal world, “the Department of Education could have some sort of advisory board or task force that began to think a lot bigger about how to reduce racial segregation in the schools in the region.” Instead, she says, we currently “have this crazy, fragmented school system that’s built around, coterminous with housing segregation, and then you get segregated schools.”
Eaton notes the limits of good intentions. She says most of the teachers with whom she communicates are genuine in their searches for ways to alleviate the pressures on Metco students. Nevertheless, the academic in her can’t help but to notice how many of them are also white and educated in the same way that she is, and she suspects their commonality is part of why she is perceived as such a valued resource.
“I try not to be like, Oh, those suburban people, they just need to be more aware. Read James Baldwin,” she says. “There’s a reason why they weren’t ever exposed to James Baldwin, and it’s because of segregation, which was created by all these structures and laws and policies, and now it’s backed up by economics and it’s just this—it’s a huge mess.”
Eaton continues, “It feels good to be like, Oh, look at that person over there, that’s a hypocrite. That’s really easy to do,” she says. “There’s a million ways in which we’re [all] hypocrites, but the real thing is the structure that’s been created.”
And the only way to attack those structures, she says, is through coordinated conviction. “I think it just takes more than money right now, I think it takes a commitment and a willingness and priority to do it. And clarity. Like, let’s come up with a plan for reducing school segregation in the region. A plan! All we’re talking about is a plan.”
‘Changing the Narrative’
Metco is under new leadership. And the woman in charge wants to redefine the way people think about it. “It’s not a program,” she says. “To me, this is a movement.”
In January of 2018, Milagros “Milly” Arbaje-Thomas was named the new chief executive of METCO Inc., succeeding Jean McGuire, the activist and administrator who had led the program nearly since its inception. Arbaje-Thomas has extensive experience in the nonprofit sector, having spent 15 years managing antipoverty programs at Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD), and her personal experience mirrors those of many students in the program she now oversees.
Born in the Dominican Republic, Milly moved to Lynn when she was in the fourth grade, at age 10, before going on to a private education at St. Mary’s High School, where she was among the few minority students and the only Lantinx in her graduating class. She earned her master’s degree in social work at Boston College and a certificate in nonprofit leadership and management at Boston University, and she is now part of a Metco family herself, with two daughters enrolled in the program at Brookline public schools.
Arbaje-Thomas hopes that communities will recognize the urgency of the moment and redouble their commitment to this “movement.” “To me, this is a program about race,” she says. “In this day and age, with our political climate, we need stuff like this more than we ever needed it before, and our focus is integrating schools with diversity.
“It’s a movement to change minds, to build friendships, to prepare people for a better tomorrow.”
The hiring process was a protracted one and involved Milly sitting for interviews with dozens of Metco stakeholders, from alums to teachers to directors and others.
“People were verbalizing to me their concerns [about] what Metco’s been lacking, what Metco should be doing, what Metco hasn’t been doing,” she says.
Incorporating insights she had gathered, Arbaje-Thomas hit the ground running. Her hiring saw the Metco change its leadership title from executive director to CEO, and she reorganized the program’s leadership structure into a team of subordinate directors to delegate and better coordinate with outside agencies. As a result, she says that for the first time in its history, Metco has a comprehensive strategy and direction.
Arbaje-Thomas is recasting the METCO, Inc. office on Dimock Street in Roxbury as a home base for all branches of Metco. The headquarters is no longer just a brick-and-mortar destination for parents filing applications, as the anecdotes go, as soon as their child has a birth certificate. The new leadership is re-imagining it as an education access hub for students, complete with newly licensed social workers and specialized teachers who can help with academic challenges in specific subjects.
“I see us being a headquarters,” Arbaje-Thomas says, dreaming of a future location “where we actually can have multiple classrooms to do all kinds of Saturday programming, after-school programming, and things to prepare students to really be able to compete and not fall behind.” She hopes to set aside tired feuds with Boston Public Schools regarding funding and instead focus on capitalizing on the opportunities born of the Racial Imbalance Act.
She has also proposed changes to the enrollment application process, from a first-come, first-served system to a lottery, which she believes will help Metco be a better champion of true equal opportunity. Instead of accepting applications all year, there will be a finite submissions period, and while parents historically were tasked with visiting Dimock Street to submit paper applications in person, moving forward, Metco plans to allow for online applications as well. The aim is for the process as a whole to be more efficient and more transparent, whereas in the past the program faced murmurs that the process favored the socially connected. Digitizing will also help build a student database that Arbaje-Thomas hopes can be used to advance the goals of the RIA.
“What I want to do is really bring in an incoming class to each district that is truly representative of the urban community of Boston,” she says. “I want to be able to give you a little of everything, from different racial backgrounds to different neighborhoods of Boston to different economic backgrounds.”
There are fundraising ambitions to consider. “Imagine, we have over 10,000 alumni out there,” Arbaje-Thomas says. “Imagine if everybody gave just a $100-a-year donation.
“We’ve never had a fundraising arm to Metco. We’ve only always relied on the state, and we know that there’s untapped resources, both in the districts, alumni, donors, [and] grants.”
The focus on development is essential to the new vision for Metco. Arbaje-Thomas’ first battle on that front begat her first victory, as in mid-2018 she won a $1.5M state budget increase to address the transportation gap. It was Metco’s first uptick in a decade.
“I had my lobbyists at the State House every single week, one by one, having private conversations behind the scenes talking about why they should invest now, talking about believing in new leadership,” she says. “We’re engaging parents, we’re engaging alumni, we’re engaging districts, and we’re going to get more money.”
In the personnel department, Arbaje-Thomas has focused on hiring directors of diversity, equity, and inclusion—language she picked up from community engagement. She hopes to make sure teachers are trained in matters of cultural sensitivity, like implicit bias, at every Metco district, not merely the proactive ones.
“We’re changing that narrative,” Arbaje-Thomas says. “We’re here and we’ve existed and we’ve survived for this [many] years because there is really and truly a racial imbalance, there is racial discrimination, there is lack of understanding of each other.”
After so many years, success stories, and lessons learned, the more the Metco story is told, the CEO hopes, the more it can serve its goals—even beyond the Commonwealth. “I want people to think of us as a think tank,” she says, with aims for Metco to become “a national model for school integration.”
With her own family, Arbaje-Thomas has seen the way that the Metco story has evolved. She explains how her own daughters—multicultural children of well-employed, college-educated parents—have been uniquely situated to connect with both other Metco students and students of color of different backgrounds as well as with white peers. Some of the lessons they’re learning are hard, she explains, and are different than the ones she learned as a young Dominican girl at St. Mary’s. But opportunities to bridge those different experiences are vital to Arbaje-Thomas’ ambitions for her daughters’ educations and identities. And they’re lessons Metco positions them to learn.
“Sometimes you have to create the opportunity for people to be in the same classroom so that they can build those friendships and reduce those racial barriers, and then things naturally happen,” Arbaje-Thomas says. “That’s what the Metco program does.”
“What does it mean to be a Metco district?” Arbaje-Thomas asks. “Does it mean that when the kid starts acting up you send them back to Boston? Or does that mean that you embrace them all the way, that they’re yours for life? And that you will do just as much as you would do for anybody else in your town?”
Give Them Credit
For Steve Desrosiers, the discomfort he felt with the 2014 post-Ferguson seminar at Lincoln-Sudbury was an omen. In time, he grew increasingly frustrated by the expectation that he could serve as a mediator on all variety of racial matters, particularly when resident students revealed unsophisticated perspectives on social and historical matters.
“I’m like, what did you do to even prepare them for a real conversation on this topic?” he asks. “You didn’t.”
His frustrations led to fissures with school leaders, and in the summer of 2017, Steve Desrosiers was relieved of his post as Lincoln-Sudbury Metco director. The district superintendent, who also serves as high school principal for Lincoln-Sudbury, terminated his contract. “It was not a decision that students, teachers, [and] parents on the high school side felt was justified given the significant progress made during my three years at the helm of the program,” he says.
Two Metco students dedicated a graduation speech to the outgoing director, citing a quote attributed to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Desrosiers penned a farewell op-ed in the school’s newspaper. “There is an awful lot that is out of our immediate control,” he wrote. He told students they are privileged to be educated in a district where families are “committed to preserving the key ideals that are the true inheritance of the American revolution.”
“We have work yet to do, and to whom much is given…” one sentence ended, allowing students to infer the rest.
Back working in family engagement with Boston Public Schools, Desrosiers remains a staunch supporter of Metco, and a believer in the goodwill of communities that have invested energies and dollars in raising their children to have the opportunity to learn around and about difference.
“What I give them credit for, all those communities, is that they kept those kids,” he says. “They found a way to make the state fund it.
“No matter how I feel about white privilege, those rich families pay for that program every year,” whether those bused students are close with their kids or not. “I don’t critique Metco districts because they are surrounded by other districts who are not doing Metco who probably look down on them, right? There are only [a few] … doing this work.”
The November after his departure, Desrosiers was invited back to Lincoln-Sudbury by students. To his delight, they wanted to share the dedication of a new mural installed in front of the school’s Metco office with their old mentor. Now a Metco alum of a different sort, the former director also presented his work on engagement at the 2017 Metco Directors’ Association Conference. It was a bittersweet homecoming, but Desrosiers remains proud of his affiliation and work, and continues to believe that in willing communities, the program has transformative power.
And its lessons have never been more urgent.
“The great potential of a program like Metco,” Desrosiers says, “is that we begin to thaw some of this craziness out of our fucking democracy.”
This project was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. If you want to see more in-depth journalism like this in the Greater Boston region, you can become a sustaining supporter or make a one-time donation at givetobinj.org.