Black Parents Resist Calls To End Voluntary Busing

Boston's landmark program is under attack for draining best students from urban schools

PARIS WILKEY, a 16-year-old high school sophomore, gets up at 6:15 every weekday morning and rides a school bus from his home in the Roxbury section of Boston to suburban Newton North High School.

"It's very dangerous and hard to get an education where I live," Paris says. "You always have to watch your back."

Paris and more than 3,000 other Boston students like him are part of a voluntary busing program that has been used to integrate the city's minority urban students with white suburban students for nearly three decades.

When the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity, known as the METCO program, began in 1966, it was the first voluntary school desegregation program in the United States. This was well before the tumult of court-ordered busing gripped Boston in 1974.

Participation in METCO is voluntary for both the students and the suburban schools; the state reimburses suburban districts for the cost of educating Boston students.

The program is so popular that 7,500 students are on the wait list. The state cannot fund any more than 3,300 participants.

Paris's mother, Karen Granger, put her son on the METCO wait list when he was six months old. Many mothers, such as Voncille Cherrie, sign their children up before they are even born. "You have to start early," says Ms. Cherrie, whose son, Phillip, is now in sixth grade and has participated in METCO since kindergarten.

In spite of its popularity with urban families, an aide to Mayor Raymond Flynn called for a phase-out of the METCO program last week. The aide, Theodore Landsmark, charged that METCO robs the city's schools of the most motivated minority students and parents.

"We cannot hope to improve the quality of our neighborhood's schools without the participation of active parents whose upwardly mobile aspirations for their children are an essential ingredient in an improved learning environment," Mr. Landsmark says. Parental participation

Yet there is no research to suggest that parents who choose to participate in voluntary busing programs are more motivated or supportive than other parents.

"The research that has been done shows that it is quite a cross section of children [that participate in voluntary busing]," says Gary Orfield, a professor of education at Harvard University. "Certainly, these parents are organized enough and interested enough to get connected to the program in some way. But it doesn't tend to be a really elite population."

METCO administrators say the program should be expanded rather than phased out since voluntary educational desegregation is still needed. "Boston may, in fact, have become more racially segregated," says Sandra Vaughn, associate director of the program. Minority students now make up 80 percent of the city's school system.

"The METCO program was founded to ensure that all students, urban and suburban, have the best integrated educational opportunities," says Jean McGuire, executive director of METCO. "There is an implication in Landsmark's statements that some parents and children are more worthy than others.... Is the intention to turn back the clock of democracy?"

Cornisha Cherrie is one of many METCO success stories. She grew up in Roxbury but started attending suburban schools in third grade. "The environments are totally opposite," says Cornisha, who has just finished her junior year at Tuskegee University in Alabama. "I got the care that I needed as far as my education is concerned. The [suburban] teachers really take the initiative to make sure that you are learning."

Cornisha plans to become a doctor and return to work in the minority neighborhoods of Boston. "METCO gave me that background and support that I needed to go on and then come back and help my community," she says.

Getting rid of METCO "would be a grave injustice to the children who are entitled to the best public education that they can receive," says Voncille Cherrie, mother of both Cornisha and sixth-grader Phillip. `If they abolish this program, it's not going to change anything for the kids who are not motivated and don't want to learn. If anything, it would have a negative effect on our children who are already motivated."

Despite the individual successes, there have been tensions between METCO participants and suburbanites. Some METCO students have encountered racism in the suburban schools.

"The racism in Newton bothers me," says Paris. "I've had a couple of incidents with the kids in school. But I just have to deal with it. If I go back to a Boston school now, I know I won't get anything done whatsoever."

For suburban students and parents, there have been some uneasy adjustments and accommodations.

"We all made a very conscious attempt to welcome the METCO students and to make the program successful," says Selma Mirsky, whose two children went through Newton schools and became friends with some of the METCO students from Boston.

But when problems came up, racial sensitivity made it difficult to suggest improvements in the program, Mrs. Mirsky says. "Even if we assessed the mechanics of the program as objectively as possible, we were considered racist," she says. "You could not criticize the way things were going in any way."

In spite of this, Mirsky doesn't think METCO should be phased out. "To stop it and not replace it with something else would be very sad," she says.

But abolishing METCO might not bring many students back into the Boston school system in the long run.

Many parents now in the program say the city system is hopelessly stagnant and offers no hope for their children.

"I just get so tired of it," Voncille Cherrie says. "Nothing ever happens. The representatives that are supposed to be representing us - the people - sit around the table and talk about the same thing over and over again. Nothing ever gets off the table." Private school option

For Paris, returning to Boston schools is not an option. He plans to attend college after he graduates from high school and has no intention of jeopardizing that goal to help improve his neighborhood school.

"There's no possible way that we [METCO students] could change that school," he says. "It's the kids there and their parents that have to change. A lot of them just don't care."

"If they did phase METCO out, Paris would end up in private school," his mother says. "I've talked to other parents and they've said the same thing."

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