By Eliza Rosenberry
For more than 30 years, Bedford has participated in the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity, a voluntary desegregation program known as METCO. The program brings minority students from Boston public schools to affluent, mostly white suburban school districts like Bedford.
For Bedford METCO director Claire Jones, it’s personal. Originally from Mattapan, she participated in METCO as a student and attended public school in Lincoln, graduating from Lincoln-Sudbury High School.
“It’s coming full circle for me,” Jones smiles, leaning back in her desk chair. She oversees the full program across all four Bedford schools, but her office is at BHS, across the hall from a METCO lounge which she describes as a “melting pot” for high school students.
METCO began in 1966, one year after the Racial Imbalance Act which outlawed segregation of Massachusetts public schools, and a few years before controversial mandatory busing was instituted in the City of Boston. This year is METCO’s fiftieth anniversary, though Bedford joined the program in 1974. At the time, the Boston Globe published an article hailing METCO as “the answer to significant suburban involvement in the desegregation of the Boston schools.”
While busing was mandatory in Boston, METCO was — and remains — voluntary.
“The beauty of the program is that whole towns wanted diversity,” Jones reflects.
Today, Bedford welcomes 98 African American and Hispanic students from neighborhoods across Boston, who wake up before dawn to catch the bus and get to school before class starts. Superintendent Jon Sills is proud that the Bedford student population is 30 percent nonwhite, with much of that diversity coming from the METCO program and Hanscom Air Force Base. Bedford itself is more than 85 percent white, according to 2010 census data.
Bedford receives more than $600,000 in state funding for METCO, which ends up being a little over $6,000 per participating student. The average cost per pupil in Bedford’s public schools is close to $18,000 per year, according to state records.
“This is as much to the benefit of the Bedford students to be able to have a diverse education as it is to the benefit of the Boston students to have a more rigorous, focused education,” says Superintendent Sills.
METCO Graduates and Students Speak Out
Ivana Serret is a director at Action for Boston Community Development, an anti-poverty organization, and is a 2007 graduate of Bedford High School. She joined METCO in second grade, when her family moved back to Boston from the Dominican Republic, and recalls feeling welcomed and supported by Bedford teachers and administrators.
“In Bedford, we did feel like we were at home,” says Serret. “I was very blessed to be there.”
Brandon Baez and Chauncey Williams, current BHS seniors in the METCO program, say the same thing. Baez, who lives in Jamaica Plain, first enrolled in METCO in third grade. He says the rigorous academic expectations in Bedford challenged him more than his local school might have.
“I don’t believe I would have been in that same place,” Baez says.
“It pushes you,” agrees Williams, a Dorchester resident who first came to Bedford in middle school.
Baez and Williams play football and say that has been instrumental in forging connections with “lifelong friends” here in Bedford. They want to become guidance counselors and work with urban youth, motivated at least partly by the support they’ve felt from Bedford and METCO administrators and teachers.
“I definitely want to carry that and give back,” says Baez.
But they acknowledge there have been difficult moments. Williams recalls visiting Bedford with his family and seeing some graffiti that prompted his mother to have a candid conversation with him about race and ignorance.
“We’re minorities here,” Williams says. “All I could do is try to educate my friends and peers.”
And of course, there arethe logistics. Serret remembers that that her morning commute was exhausting under the best of circumstances, and if there was inclement weather, forget it.
“We would spend a lot of time on the bus,” she laughs.
Jones admits that the program can sometimes get “bumpy” and the transition to Bedford can be difficult, though she points out that high-achieving exam schools in Boston have similar demographics.
“There is a benefit for students to have some social experiences with people that don’t look like them,” says Jones.
METCO in Bedford
Given that backdrop, Superintendent Sills says he is dedicated to promoting inclusiveness among Bedford public school students, teachers, and staff. He cites programs like the Tenacity Challenge and Facing History and Ourselves as well as cultural proficiency programs for teachers as examples of Bedford’s proactive pursuit of solutions. Administrators and community members are also attempting to renew the METCO host family program, which pairs up Bedford and Boston families. Click here to read about Bedford’s 2016 Tenacity Challenge
Jennifer Buckley, a Bedford parent and owner of a local dance program, is involved in organizing the host program and has also developed a morning dance class with the goal of bringing METCO and Bedford kids together outside of school.
“It’s those social interactions – playdates, after school activities, parent connections, or weekend community events – that really build lasting friendships,” Buckley says. “It takes work to make that happen but it’s so critical to ensure that METCO students and parents feel like a part of the Bedford community, and it’s equally important for Bedford students to have those opportunities to spend time with their Boston-based peers. If that doesn’t happen, we all miss out.”
Most important for everyone — students, teachers, and community members — is to foster a sense of welcoming and inclusiveness within Bedford schools and throughout the town.
“METCO is the program that these Bedford students travel through to get here,” Jones says firmly. “But they’re Bedford students.”
METCO remains an incredibly popular program. This time last year, there were more than 10,000 students on the METCO waitlist and just over 3,200 students enrolled in the program.
Data shows that METCO is working: participating students have higher test scores and are more likely to pursue higher education than their peers who stay in local Boston schools. A report last year by the Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research called for expansion of the program, and “Last Week Tonight” host John Oliver recently cited METCO as a success story during a segment on present-day school segregation.
Longtime METCO director Jean McGuire, who recently retired after 40 years, told NPR earlier this year that the program founders never expected to celebrate a fiftieth anniversary.
“We shouldn’t have to do this after a couple years,” McGuire recalls thinking. “Boston should have integrated schools and housing, and the banking laws will change.”
But school segregation and institutional biases remain in Massachusetts. The Pioneer Institute reports that a quarter of African American students in the state attend heavily segregated schools, and a recent state report shows that students of color remain more likely to be formally disciplined (suspensions, expulsions, removals) than their white peers. In Bedford, African American students make up 7percent of the student population but nearly a third of disciplined students.
Editor’s Note: METCO will celebrate its 50th anniversary with a Jazz Brunch on Sunday, December 11 – Click here to learn more