Proposed lottery for METCO students earns mixed responses

Milly Arbaje-Thomas, chief executive officer of METCO, listens to a question from an alumna who attended a meeting in Roxbury on Monday evening. Yukun Zhang photo

About 100 parents and METCO graduates gathered at a lecture room in the Thelma D. Burns building on Warren Street on Monday night to hear from program officials about the details of the program’s proposed shift to a randomized assignment system.

Started for Boston students in 1966, METCO is an integration program that provides a suburban public school education for African-American, Hispanic, and Asian students who live in the city. It currently places 3,300 participants in 190 participating schools in 33 suburban school districts every year. There is a waitlist of more than 8,000 applicants for the approximately 300 openings available each year.

The current time-based enrollment system means that parents who hope to get a seat in the program need to sign their children up immediately after birth.

“It creates two groups—some who know and some who don’t,” said Kenlyne Exume, enrollment service coordinator of METCO. “It creates a disadvantage for people who just moved to Boston.”

The new proposal would eliminate the first-come, first-served rule, allowing parents to apply online or in person during an enrollment window each year between October and December. Participants would then be randomly selected and referred. Rejected applicants could apply during the next annual enrollment window.

Wilmary Tejeda, METCO’s director of enrollment service, said the proposed lottery system will give everyone who applies during the time window the same chance. She said METCO will also provide services in different languages.

Millie Arbaje-Thomas, METCO’s CEO, explained that the current system is mostly paper-based, which means it’s not easy to track a family’s application when a member calls to see where a student stands.

She added that moving the application online is another way the organization hopes to make the admissions process more equitable. “This would allow us to reach all of the neighborhoods,” she said. “People from different backgrounds and languages. It would allow us to reach people at all times 24 hours a day.”

Several people at the meeting challenged the fairness of the lottery system, with some arguing that the online application would make it too easy for parents to apply.

One mother said that bringing three applications in person shows the parents’ effort to get their children a better education. “When you want parents that are dedicated to their children’s education, you don’t want to make everything so easy,” she said.

A Braintree mother echoed that opinion, saying METCO made her more committed to her son’s education.

But Aliesha Porcena, a METCO alumna who attended school in Brookline, said applying online does not equate to easiness. “You are either a dedicated parent going to those meeting or you are not,” she said, and going online will not change that. She noted that no system would be perfect, but the process should be more accessible.

Sharyon Brown from Hyde Park said that an online process could increase transparency and help parents navigate a challenging system. Her son, who has autism, was turned away from their assigned suburban district, she said.

“If a lottery system or something online is going to give a parent some way to prove that yes, my son or daughter was on the list… it makes it harder for districts to cherry pick who they want or don’t want,” Brown said.

Some pointed out that people who have been on the waitlist for years will be in the same pool with new applicants every year. Lucas Callado, a Dorchester father who has a son on the METCO waitlist, said people who signed up early and have been on the waitlist should be prioritized.

Another attendee, a METCO alumnus who now works in a Boston high school, suggested that people on the waitlist should be “grandfathered” from having to reapply every year.

The crowd applauded when Masha Smith, whose children were the first class of METCO students in the 1960s, said, “it hurts me to my heart that 60 years later, we still need METCO.”

A 2018 study by a Harvard doctoral candidate, Ann Mantil, shows that enrolling in a suburban school could give Boston students an edge on higher education. She found that METCO participants are more likely than Boston Public School students and applicants who didn’t get referred to graduate from high school on time and be immediately enrolled in a four-year college.

If the proposal is adopted, the new process could start this October. A parent rally in support of METCO funding will be held at the State House on Fri., March 15.

A report from WBUR 90.9FM was used in compiling this story.

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