Having grown up in a suburban part of the greater Boston area, I greatly valued being a student at a diverse high school. However, my town was not particularly diverse itself, but rather it participated in a program called METCO, also known as the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity. This program allowed for minority, inner city kids to come to predominantly white, wealthy suburbs for a good public school education. This program was always important to me, as I felt fortunate to be educated along side people who were so different from me. Though I valued the program in my own education, I did not know a lot about the program as a whole outside of my friends who participated and my town, which sparked my curiosity to learn more. Specifically, I wanted to know how the experiences of the first METCO participants and those in more recent years differed.
The METCO (Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity) was originally created in 1966 in response to the deeply segregated educational communities in Massachusetts, the African Americans being concentrated in the inner city and Somerville with whites in the suburbs. Bostonians met the program with relative warmth, in part because of new legislation. In 1965, Massachusetts passed the Racial Imbalance Law, which offered benefits to school districts with at least fifty percent minority students (Eaton, 3). Parents signed their children up for METCO so they would to receive a better education, which continues to be the driving reason for METCO sign up. Originally, it was supposed to be short term, until the Boston Public Schools improved, however, the program has become America’s oldest desegregation because of its success. As opposed to dying out, the program accelerated (South Boston Today). The participation increased from only seven school districts in its first year, to thirty-three districts now, forty-nine years later (Massachusetts Department of Education). Over the course of the last half a century, it is generally thought that America has made leaps and bounds in terms of achieving racial equality. Though the country may have an African American president, the road for METCO students has not been as smooth as one might romanticize. The program receives amazing feedback for providing them with “good or excellent” experiences, but after a significant amount of research, I would argue that this is because of the resilience and toughness that METCO students have exhibited from the get-go in the sixties, and their willingness to seize opportunity, as opposed to attributing it completely to the receiving schools and their educators. The students have a lot to overcome, many of the same things students in the sixties struggled with.
Susan Eaton, a researcher on Civil Rights issues, wrote an in depth account of the experiences of sixty-five of the earliest METCO participants, a book called “The Other Boston Bussing Story.” Now adults, they reflected on their experiences both good and bad in the revolutionary program. One main issue they had with being placed in these suburban schools was their feelings when placed in either high performing or low performing classes; both caused problems. When a black student was placed in a high performing class, he or she was often the only black student in this class. They described a feeling of isolation and unworthiness. They also described feeling that “the smallest slip would land (them) in trouble” (Eaton, 71). The adults Eaton interviewed described a constant feeling of need to prove themselves because of a believed pre-conceived notion by their educators and white peers that black students were not as smart as their white counterparts. The METCO students also reported that they and their other African American friends were placed in low performance classes even when they were excelling students academically (Eaton, 72). Eaton identifies the three major possibilities for the causes of these problems with the tracking system and METCO students. One of these is the possibility that the suburban schools had higher standards than the schools the METCO students had come from. The second is that long-term METCO students still underperformed in comparison to their white peers, despite having the same education. This could be because of difference is very early childhood or because of the unique problems. The third and most troubling issue is that black METCO students were being placed in lower performing classes because of their teachers’ and administrators prejudices (Eaton, 72).
Aside from racism perpetrated by teachers, the former METCO students also interviewed by Eaton also experienced racism inflicted by their peers. Many of the students interviewed had heard the word “nigger” at some point during their time in the suburban school. There was also occasionally racist graffiti throughout the school. There were cases of dramatic racism, like repeated harassment, which was largely ignored by educators and administrators (58). However, it seems as though there were more commonly experiences of “subtle,” more frequent racist occurrences. Remarkably though, the former METCO students do not dwell on these experiences, but consider them “as merely one aspect of a larger and multifaceted educational experience” (59). One student that had been called a nigger wrote it off as “stupid stuff” he continued that he either “ignored that or (I) insulted them back” (59). How strong these METCO students are and were. Eaton adds, though, that their appeared nonchalance of racism is not completely accurate. They, in fact, would often get in physical altercations with the kids who called them these racist slurs. Today, in their adult lives, they continue to “speak out and take action against racism in its subtle and blatant forms” (59). There was a difference in the way two different groups of METCO students thought about the racism they experienced. Some students “dismissed” the racism, while the other group believed that it was the white students who were afraid of being educated with people they viewed as being so different from them.
The METCO in its current form program seeks to address two major issues in the Massachusetts public school system by placing inner city, minority (Asian, Hispanic, and Black) students in predominately white suburban schools. The first is the “racial imbalance” that is experienced in the districts sending students. That is, the concentrated amount of minority groups in public schools. The second and less obvious issue is “racial isolation.” This issue pertains to the school receiving METCO students, where students are almost exclusively accustomed to interacting with other white students. Studies have shown the importance for students of all races to have the experience interacting with races different than their own (Cubeta, 2014.) METCO in some regard has proven these studies correct.
According to research done by Harvard University in 1997, a whopping ninety-one percent of students participating in METCO reported “they had a good or excellent experience in learning to get along with people from other backgrounds.” Eighty-two percent of students said they had “a good or excellent experience with the academic program.” Though nearly all METCO students describe good experiences, I was surprised that over 50 percent of students reported an experience of discrimination by teachers (Harvard, 1997). In addition to this, although METCO students can be sent to the receiving public school from the early age of pre-kindergarten, they still have an extremely lower average test scores than their peers in school (Cubeta, 2014).
The academic effects of METCO students in the most recent research on the program are overwhelming. The research shows that the METCO students far out perform their peers at the schools in their own districts. Ninety percent of METCO students go on to graduate from high school and attend college. This is drastically different than the schools they had come from, which were environments where college preparation was not heavily emphasized due to a variety of more pressing issues like staying away from gang violence and drugs. It is noted, however, that the evidence for academic success in METCO may not be caused by the program itself but is because of the fact that it is a self selecting program, so the families that make the effort to enroll their children in this program are more likely to encourage students to do well in school. It is incredible that these students have managed to do as well as they have in school, considering the unique array of problems they are met with, like early morning wake ups (one of the things adults remember most about the program), long bus rides, discrimination, and a general uneasiness in an environment so different from that of their own (Eaton Chirichigno, 16).
As a white girl having grown up in a suburban town, I found it compelling as well as accurate to read of the educational benefits to integration for all races. The National Academy of Education concluded that being educated in a racially diverse setting “provides the necessary conditions under which other educational policies can facilitate improved academic achievement, improved intergroup relations, and positive long-term outcomes” (Eaton Chirichigno, 23). Hopefully, the current METCO students will receive a positive outcome in this sense, as I know I did from being educated with them. However, some of the sixty-five METCO students interviewed by Eaton would not say the program had a positive affect on them. One interviewee, Paul Hammond, said that METCO “screwed (him) up for life” (Eaton. 83). He reasons this in saying that just being in METCO, sent the message that where the student was from was a “garbage heap.” Hammond says he internalized these notions of his neighborhood, concluding that he, too, was “shit” (Eaton, 183). Eaton goes on, saying that other METCO students who had an overall negative experience with the program had similar resentments to Paul’s. The complaints by these students, as troubling as it is, seem like they could hold true today. One of these is that, by placing students in a neighborhood so different from their own, they felt like their background and culture was “neither acknowledged or valued” (Eaton, 184).
There is a struggle here over what solutions for METCO’s problems could be. It has become evident that, while METCO certainly opens numerous academic doors for student, it is still problematic that METCO students are uprooted from their neighborhoods, which provide much of the basis for their background and culture, and are placed in towns that are seen as “better,” causing problems with their identity. In an ideal world, the Boston and Somerville public schools would improve so that students in these districts do not need to leave in order to get opportunities. However, this would detract from the benefits of the learning in a racially diverse environment.
As a student who considers herself to be very lucky to have been taught alongside METCO students, I have to admit that I find my own thesis troubling and surprising, that students are not having the wonderful experiences in the program that I would have hoped. Though I knew of some of the struggles faced by METCO students, the five a.m. wake ups, hour long bus rides, and parent(s) they practically never saw due to their working two jobs, I was blind to some of the others. Since I grew up in an extremely liberal, welcoming town, perhaps I was sheltered to the discrimination that students could potentially face. Though I offer no solution to the problems METCO students face (aside from everyone to be perfectly welcoming and accepting), I think that it is important at the very least to acknowledge the hardships students face, and the extent to which they persevere.
Cubeta, Kate, Regina Caines, and Bonnie Williamson. “The Wheels on the Bus Go round and Round: Metco in Our Town.” – Your View. N.p., 3 Apr. 2014. Web. 01 May 2014.
Eaton, Susan, and Gina Chirichigno. METCO Merits More. Issue brief. N.p.: Pioneer Institute, n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2014.
Eaton, Susan E. The Other Boston Busing Story: What’s Won and Lost across the Boundary Line. New Haven: Yale UP, 2001. Print.
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