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THE GREAT DIVIDE

New admission process may give more disadvantaged students a shot at Metco

METCO souvenir bags were handed out at a showcase event in 2021.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

In an effort to level the playing field for families, Greater Boston’s racial integration program for public schools is phasing out requirements for students to include school records in their applications under an overhaul of an admission process that has long benefitted those in the know.

Metco also is adding a new feature to the admission process: Parents will be able to choose which districts they want to apply to instead of receiving random assignments.

Having to produce upfront academic and attendance records was leading to a high rate of incomplete applications, said a top official with the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity Inc. Obtaining the documents can be a cumbersome process, leaving it up to parents to figure out how to get them and then requiring persistence if their children’s current schools failed to produce them in a timely fashion.

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More broadly, the requirement has been creating an unnecessary divide between how Boston students and suburbanites are treated when enrolling in one of the 33 districts that participate in Metco. Typically, when families living in the suburban districts register their children for school, they can sign a release form that enables the district to request academic records directly from the children’s previous school, putting the onus on school officials instead of the families.

“This is not equitable,” said Milly Arbaje-Thomas, Metco’s chief executive. “If families in the suburbs don’t have to go through all these steps and bring all this documentation to be enrolled, then Metco families shouldn’t have to go through that either. This is a public education. People should be able to raise their hands and say they want to be part of this integration program.”

The changes come amid growing efforts in Boston and around the nation to reshape admission processes for public school programs to ensure disadvantaged students have a fair chance against those from more affluent families. Frequently the efforts have been subject to legal challenges.

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Boston is scheduled to deliver oral arguments Wednesday in the US Court of Appeals in defense of a temporary admission policy used to admit exam school students for fall 2021, which distributed seats to academically capable students per ZIP code instead of by a citywide rank order. A group of white and Asian parents filed the appeal after a lower court judge last year upheld the legality of the admission changes.

Metco’s challenges with equity are slightly different. Metco has long enrolled students from more affluent backgrounds at rates almost twice that of Boston Public Schools, helping to fuel an exodus of middle-class students of color to suburban districts. Two-thirds of Metco’s 3,200 students are Black, while the participation rates of Latino and Asian students are much lower than that of BPS.

This is the second major change to Metco’s admission process since the program began overhauling it three years ago. The program kicked off the effort in 2019 by creating an online system for families to submit applications and establishing an annual lottery to assign seats. Previously, parents would fill out only paper applications and could do so as soon as their children were born, creating massive waiting lists and a process that tended to benefit those in the know.

Interested families can learn more about Metco’s application changes and its 33 partnering districts at a showcase from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday at the Boys & Girls Club on Talbot Avenue in Dorchester. The first lottery cycle closes on Dec. 31.

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Under the revised application policy, parents only need to provide a proof of identification for themselves, their child’s birth certificate, and proof of Boston residency.

For the 2023-24 school year only, suburban schools may ask applicants for school records for grades 6-12 after Metco headquarters refer students to them but before the districts accept them. After that, districts will have to wait to get those records after parents officially decide to enroll their children.

Metco districts can still exercise discretion in who they enroll, and may weigh factors including family commitment to participate, whether family members are alumni or other individual “district goals related to the purpose of Metco,” the policy states. Districts can also require an interview before admission and orientation.

Several parents welcomed the changes.

Louis Brown of Roxbury said he scrambled last year to get attendance and academic records and wasn’t sure if they actually existed because his son was in day care and hadn’t entered school yet.

His son ultimately prevailed in the lottery, but his school assignment was about 25 miles away in Concord, which he considered too far and rejected it. This year, Brown submitted an application specifically for Newton, where he went as a Metco student, because he values Newton’s high academic standards, the diversity of its student populations, and its resources.

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“Everyone is in the admission process for Metco because they want the best for their children and you should be able to pick the school you’re most comfortable with,” he said.

Reem Mohamed of Brighton said she also likes being able to choose districts, especially since not all Metco buses go to Brighton. Three years ago, she reluctantly pulled her four children out of the Metco program in Scituate because the closest bus stop was in Dorchester, creating a difficult drive for her and her husband while trying to get to work on time.

She is hoping to get her two youngest children, who are currently in an East Boston charter school, into a nearby Metco program.

“I’m so happy to be able to choose,” she said.

Local districts said they are open to the changes.

“The new policy doesn’t prevent us from doing what we need to do,” said Latoya Rivers, the Metco director for Wayland. “We will see how it plays out.”

One of the benefits, she said, of having the school records included in the application under the old policy was that it sped up the school registration process.

“When I’m bringing families into the district, I want them to feel supported as soon as they come through the door,” she said.

Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, applauded Metco’s decision to eliminate barriers in the application process, noting the program plays a vital role in diversifying suburban schools.

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“It is critical for academic programs to continuously assess and reassess how improvements may benefit low-income families and students of color,” he said.




James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.