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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

What going to school with ‘METCO kids’ taught me

I grew up in Arlington, Massachusetts, a three-mile long strip of low valley about 25 minutes north of campus, tucked between Lexington, Medford and Somerville, and jammed right up against Route 2 to the South. It’s a largely white, lower-middle to upper-middle class suburb—one that has an unfortunate case of NIMBYism. It has vociferously blocked critical development such as a Red Line extension from Alewife, and technically unnecessary but class-linked development such as fast-food chains alike.

Despite this, I wasn’t totally isolated from diversity, both ethnic or cultural, and otherwise. Some of this diversity was native to Arlington, but some of it too was due to the  Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity program. Essentially, this was Boston’s school busing program, of the type that Kamala Harris and Joe Biden battled over before becoming running mates. In fact, the organization claims that it is “the nation’s largest voluntary school desegregation program”[1].

The goal of METCO, according to their website, is not only to provide kids in underfunded Boston districts the chance to attend better-funded schools, but also “to [create] the opportunity for students in [White] districts to experience the advantages of learning and working in a racially and ethnically diverse setting”[1].

Busing has been an intensely complicated and hotly debated issue even well past the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. The sparring between certain 2020 presidential candidates on the subject is perfect evidence of this. There is a lot of disagreement about whether busing achieved its goals in general[2], and a lot of that discussion actually revolves around Boston and the METCO program, which was instated in 1966[3][2].

As we are celebrating, discovering and confronting the history of Black folks in America during Black History Month, I wanted to take some time to tackle what the METCO program meant to me and taught me as a White, middle-class male in the Boston area. I also hope that this might be a springboard for others to share their own experiences with METCO from a whole range of different perspectives.

Firstly, the aspect of the METCO program that stands out to me the most is how integrated most of the METCO students were with the student body and school culture. In fact, for a long time I wasn’t even really sure what “METCO” meant, since the “METCO kids” just seemed like normal students who went to class, ate lunch and hung out with the rest of us. Of course, they had their own sub-culture, but it wasn’t like the METCO kids only hung out amongst themselves, segregated from the rest of the students in Arlington Public Schools.

I understand nowadays that while this was probably a predominant success of the program, the truth is probably much more complicated. For one thing, it must have been hard for the METCO kids to hang out with their Arlington friends after school, needing to catch early buses to get back to their home neighborhoods. I was not a partier, but it’s my understanding that METCO students would have to sleep over at a friend’s house if they wanted to hang with the other students over at the local party spots.

In general, it seemed to me that the METCO students were treated much the same as anyone else. Their social network was surprisingly intertwined with the Arlington kids, and they were generally well-liked and valued as friends. There were a couple of guys from Boston who were particularly beloved by nearly everybody.

I wasn’t particularly close with any of the Boston kids—I was a bit of an awkward dork, and I tended to stick with my old friend group—but a couple of my favorite memories from grade school involve some of them. So, in one sense, METCO taught me that, indeed, there is a great capacity for togetherness and compassion even within the halls of a high school.

The teachers had a bit more of a complicated relationship with the METCO students. I would say that quite a few of the best teachers loved and valued them at least as much as the student body—especially the kids who worked with them frequently. Some teachers certainly seemed to pick on the kids from Boston more than others. There were faculty that seemed somewhat wary and distrustful of them, although I never witnessed any out-and-out bigotry. Detentions were handed out to METCO kids pretty liberally—seemingly more so than the largely White kids from Arlington.

It was heartening to see the faculty who worked closely with the METCO kids take a vested interest in their success. It was a bit disheartening to notice that these faculty were most often tutors and teachers who held “academic support” classes. The academic support math class I was in one year had at least five or six students from Boston in it.

In this way, I saw first-hand how academically underserved and disadvantaged students from Boston often were. Whether the METCO program measurably improved the academic success of these students versus what might have been if they went to school in Boston, I do not know. However, It became obvious to me that there were continued failings that got in the way of a disproportionate number of METCO kids achieving their academic goals.

Now, the school administrations, on the other hand, were absolutely awful when it came to the METCO kids. First, METCO students were reprimanded, yelled at and formally disciplined at a seemingly disproportional rate. One academic support teacher at Ottoson Middle School in particular really seemed to have it out for these kids. We had faculty at every school whose job was essentially to handle all instances of misbehavior and formal discipline, and they seemed to always be in the business of students from Boston.

Probably the worst manifestation of such administrative abuse was how METCO students were treated by the school police officers. Yes, we had resident cops at school and, to be completely frank, nobody liked them. Part of the reason was that they always seemed to be suspicious of the METCO students, keeping a close eye on them and getting involved in conflicts that definitely did not need police presence. It meant that students from over-policed areas couldn’t even escape the constant presence of cops with deadly weapons in suburban schools.

The way that the school administrations and the police dealt with METCO students taught me that systemic racism is still alive and well. Many people assume that Massachusetts—and Boston in particular—is somehow past racism; that we are arbiters of tolerance. Yet, Boston has a long history of horrible, racist violence—look up a picture called “The Soiling of Old Glory” and read about the 1976 Boston Busing Crisis if you don’t believe me.

This history continues. Boston is still a very heavily segregated city[4], our own administration is exhibiting extreme bias against our Africana Studies department—an issue which has been going on since at least the 1970s[5]—and Cambridge police are currently under pressure to deal with the unjustified murder of Arif Sayed Faisal—a fellow Beacon.

So, while going to school with students enrolled in the METCO program was an undeniably positive experience, it also taught me some very unfortunate and valuable lessons. It taught me that systemic racism, class divide and endemic disadvantage still plague inner-city neighborhoods. It taught me that we still have a long way to go when it comes to true equity in this country, even in the Northeast.

Is METCO an overall success? I can’t say myself. I can say that the relationships Arlington students developed with Boston students were largely positive, and that they were valued and loved. We definitely discovered the “advantages of learning and working in a racially and ethnically diverse setting.” However, I don’t know how it is in other districts, and I don’t know how effective METCO is at improving academic success. This is why I want to encourage others to speak about their experiences with METCO—especially if you participated in the program. Did it help you? Or did it only serve to help the suburban kids?

If you are interested in taking the extra step in sharing your experiences with a wider audience, please reach out to us at The Mass Media! I am excited to hear more about what METCO means to those who were intimately involved in the program.

[1]https://metcoinc.org/

[2]https://www.history.com/news/desegregation-busing-schools#:~:text=In%20the%20end%2C%20Delmont%20writes,than%20the%20rights%20of%20Black

[3]https://bostonresearchcenter.org/projects_files/eob/single-entry-busing.html

[4]https://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/2020/12/08/boston-segregation/

[5]The Mass Media, Volume 9, Issue 11, November 19, 1974

About the Contributor
James Cerone, Opinions Editor