September 14, 2006– Vol. 42, No. 05
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METCO celebrates forty years of social progress

Serghino René

It was dubbed “the experiment,” and it was only supposed to last for three years, or until Boston schools “straightened up.”

Forty years later, the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity (METCO) has evolved into a national model for school desegregation.

“Without a supportive legislature, school communities and active advocates, this program would have eroded away,” said METCO Executive Director Jean McGuire.

METCO was created to provide minority students in Boston with the same academic resources as white students in the suburbs. The program accepts students from Boston neighborhoods and busses them early in the morning to predominantly white suburban communities in the North Shore, South Shore and MetroWest areas.

Students are able to benefit from the suburban school’s higher tax base and provide diversity to predominantly white school settings.

McGuire calls it a “win/win situation.”

If not for METCO, thousands more minority students would have had to learn in a segregated school system that lacked equal resources, a system that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional in the famous Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954.

Boston was one of the nation’s most stubborn cities in integrating its public schools. METCO bridged the gap.

On Sept. 7, 1966, 220 Boston students were bussed to seven different school districts — Arlington, Braintree, Brookline, Lexington, Lincoln, Newton and Wellesley. Since then, the number of METCO communities has increased to 32, with over 2,880 Boston families and 100,000 suburban families participating in the program. Approximately 9,500 METCO students have graduated and most have moved on to seek advanced degrees and pursue professional careers.

McGuire has directed METCO since 1973 and has witnessed the program at its best and worst. She grew up in Massachusetts and Washington D.C., during the 1930s and ’40s, an era when schools were separate and unequal. At the time, she dreamed of becoming a pilot, like her Tuskegee Airman cousin, or a doctor.

“We all have the ability to do something good,” McGuire said. “We just need the proper resources to help make our goals and abilities possible.”

METCO students have proven their ability to compete. In 2004, 100 percent of METCO seniors passed the new English and Math portions of the MCAS test, compared to 75 percent of Boston public school students. The METCO students even outperformed their suburban classmates, not all of whom passed.

Natascha Saunders, a 1996 graduate of Natick High School, was initially unappreciative of METCO as a middle school student. It was a hard road.

“People knew when you didn’t go to school in Boston,” Saunders said. “Who else wakes up at 5:45 a.m. to make the 6:15 a.m. bus?”

It took her a while to realize that she had an advantage over Boston public school students and was in a great position to do great things. She excelled academically and got involved in activities like student government, cheerleading, track and field and tennis.

“Eventually I started to realize, ‘Wow, I’m doing all right here,’” she said. “It was clear that these towns had a lot of money, so the schools were up to par when it came to technology, having college preparatory work, offering different levels of classes and having up-to-date books.”

Looking back, she realizes that METCO played a pivotal role in her life, providing the education she needed to get to college and operate as an individual.

“Natick High School had a college feel to it,” she explained. “It made me feel like I had some independence. I took a year of pre-law and that summer I landed an office job at Beth Israel. I was able to market myself immediately as a high school student.”

When she attended UMass Amherst, she became a bona-fide leader. She chose to do an individualized major that she named Independent Image Consulting — a combination of fashion, fitness and finance. The major still exists today, her dream immortalized for those who choose to tackle a similar career goal.

Today, Saunders is Miss Black Rhode Island and her mission is based on building self-esteem. More than just a pretty face, Saunders resides in Cranston, R.I., and works at Johnson and Wales University as a co-op employment specialist where she teaches career management. She is also in the midst of writing a school manual called “The High School Guide to Getting a Job.”

Another alum was equally thankful.

Stanley Washington, 38, of Marietta, Ga., is a product of METCO’s mission. He now owns a software development consulting service called Washington Information Technologies. METCO, he said, “planted the seeds” for his future.

“I can’t believe all the resources I got from METCO and how much of it I use today and give to my kids,” said Washington.

Originally from Dorchester, he became a METCO kindergarten pupil in Swampscott. “As a METCO student, I felt like I was living two lives,” he said. “I had a familiar life in the city and a comfortable life in Swampscott.”

Experiencing METCO at a young age, he became equally comfortable approaching both blacks and whites. He graduated from Swampscott High School in 1986 with a firm academic foundation and the competitive drive he believed would help him succeed in college.

“If you’re constantly around kids who want to graduate and go to college, constantly talking about going to college and seeing it happen, you’re going to see it happen,” said Washington.

That’s why he went to Penn State University to major in mechanical engineering. Attending the predominantly white school, he was comfortable in his own skin and was able to appreciate not being the only person of color who was smart.

“I wasn’t the only black person in my classes and it was good to see other black people who were smarter than me and trying to be an engineer,” he said. “The pride of being black spurred me on, and I wouldn’t have been [at Penn State] if it wasn’t for METCO. A combination of pride and ambition got me there.”

However, the privilege of being a METCO student doesn’t come without its share of social obstacles and mixed emotions. There have been instances where participating communities were not supportive or tolerant.

“Some students would give you the feeling as if they didn’t want you there,” Saunders said. “They called us the METCO people, as if they were giving us a form of community service.”

All that changed when METCO students began to excel. Saunders said she earned respect and gained an “eye-opening” perspective on what it means to be a person of color in the real world.

“If we were going to preach diversity, we had to let them know what it was about. Through that, we were able to dispel some of the myths they had about students from the city of Boston,” said Saunders. “It benefits them to understand diversity and they could use more of it in those towns.”

Racism didn’t become something to think about for Washington until he entered high school.

“You went to school with these kids all your life and then they changed,” said Washington.

Washington remembered one high school social studies class like it was yesterday. They were studying the Holocaust, and the discussion shifted to stereotypes. The teacher made every student jot down names one would use to negatively describe ethnic groups.

That turned out to be an eye-opener for Washington.

“I was shocked at the number of names they had for us,” said Washington. “It was like, ‘Wow!’ These people may present themselves to you a certain way face to face, but at home, it’s a different story.”

In the long run, all of the experiences proved beneficial. As METCO students, they learned to communicate, face their fears and move on.

“Life after METCO is like Swampscott all over again. I have a contract with a small company with no black people. I was the first black consultant they had, but you have to look at that and say, ‘Hey, you have to do better than the next guy to stay in,’” said Washington.

Diversity is not an issue for Saunders because she “knows what it is” and she “knows how to handle the situation.”

She urges students in the program to focus and establish a pattern of accomplishment if they seriously want to succeed.

“I can guarantee every single one of them that they will see the benefits and there is no doubt in my mind that they will see success.”

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