Schools that embraced a change

Andrea Leonard signed up her son for first grade before he could even walk. The Boston mom didn't want to waste time, as she'd heard about the lengthy waiting list for Metco, a voluntary integration program that buses children from Boston to schools in the suburbs. She yearned to give her son a quality education, and stories of overcrowding and lack of safety at inner-city schools concerned her.

That was 13 years ago. The Metco waiting list has since ballooned from hundreds of students to 16,500, and her son, Sean, is now finishing up his seventh year at school in Lexington, Mass. Like the other 3,500 students enrolled in the Metco program, Sean gets on the bus a little after 6 in the morning and returns about 4:30. If he stays for sports, he arrives home just in time for dinner. "It's a long day," says Ms. Leonard. "But it's been completely worth it."

Although Lexington is only 11 miles northwest of Boston, its verdant fields and sprawling estates give the feeling that this historic town of shot-heard-'round-the-world fame is a world away from the inner city.

It's that very contrast that inspired leaders of Lexington to pioneer the program with seven other communities back in 1966. While the city of Boston - and much of the entire country - remained embroiled in an ugly fight over the forced desegregation of public schools - this group dreamed up a voluntary plan they hoped would foster greater understanding and cooperation, bring desperately needed diversity to largely white, affluent towns, and also provide urban children with the education they deserve.

The result was Metco - a program considered by many to be a win-win situation for all involved. Over the years, the number of towns that participate has swelled to 38, and the program still enjoys strong support from many parents, teachers, administrators, and legislators.

But today, budget-tightening on the state level is forcing many communities to take a hard look at their own bottom line, including their share of the Metco budget, asking citizens to consider whether school desegregation is something they want to continue to spend tax dollars to promote. Metco currently receives $13.6 million in funding through the state Racial Imbalance Act. But the Metco budget for the 2005 school year is now uncertain.

Gov. Mitt Romney (R) wants to fund the program at the same rate - a decision that could mean cuts in many Metco services. The proposed increase by the House Ways and Means Committee would boost the Metco rate to about $3,000 per student. For the moment, participating towns continue to make up the difference between the $2,456 allotted for each Metco student and the $7,322 state standard set for all Massachusetts students. Often, the shortfall is even greater, as individual districts might have a higher per-pupil rate.

In the bucolic town of Lincoln, Mass., taxpayers pitch in anywhere from $175,000 to $440,000 per year for Metco, depending on the state budget. Lincoln, home of one of Metco's founders, was among the original seven towns to sign onto the program and today about 13 percent of Metco students are in Lincoln, the highest percentage for any town in the state.

But with budget issues looming large, town and school leaders in Lincoln made the choice, unprecedented in other Metco towns, to take the funding decision - whether to increase, decrease, or maintain the same rate of Metco funding - to the residents. A nonbinding referendum was taken at both its Town Meeting as well as at the polls.

At the meeting, parents of young children spoke passionately about Metco's critical role in exposing suburban students to a world that is increasingly diverse. Senior residents spoke elatedly of Metco's inception and strides made during the civil rights era. And Metco's president delivered an emotional speech, quoting Martin Luther King Jr. and bringing many townspeople to their feet.

In the end, 64 percent of Lincoln residents voted to maintain funding at its current level, a decision the school committee has since decided to honor.

The town does have its Metco detractors. Barbara Low, a Lincoln mother of three children, spoke against "the costly strategy of importing diversity from 20 miles away ... if we want to reduce the Lincoln subsidy, now is the time to start."

But Metco funding should not be strictly about dollars and cents, says David Adams, Metco director at Bedford High School in Bedford, Mass, a town adjacent to Lincoln. "These kids get a cross-cultural experience," he says, adding that the impact of Metco lasts a lifetime. In the short term, graduates of Metco schools are keeping up with their suburban peers. "Ninety-eight percent of all students from Bedford High go on to four-year colleges," Mr. Adams says.

Among those Bedford seniors headed to college is Sheldon Ayala. One of four children, Sheldon has attended Bedford schools as a Metco student for 10 years.

He was recently accepted at Northeastern University in Boston, news that thrills his family. "Everyone there is going to college," says his mother, Maria Ayala. "This has really benefited him." His younger brother, Shawn, is also a student at Bedford High, in the 10th grade. Mom rides with her boys daily, as she is a bus monitor and a teaching assistant in a Bedford kindergarten class. "Sometimes the distance gets to me," she says, "but it's been wonderful for the boys. They have accomplished a lot."

In an ideal world, says Metco's executive director, Jean McGuire, there wouldn't be a need for Metco. Schools in the inner-city should be far better, and suburban towns should offer more affordable housing, she says.

But until then, she and other champions of Metco will keep making their daily trek to the Boston State House, lobbying legislators for increased funding and working to safeguard the program they feel has worked for them.

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