First, there was the spitting incident. The target: students at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School participating in a Black Lives Matter sit-in three years ago. Then, in 2016, the hate resurfaced. Three white students posed with a Confederate flag. And in the boys’ locker room, a “white pride” sticker appeared, emblazoned with information about a neo-Nazi website.
Each of those episodes left the community wounded, but they proved especially searing for one group: students from predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods in Boston who spent years being bused to the suburbs, where, they said, they often felt ostracized. It was, they said, the bittersweet price to receive a top-notch education in an affluent, and mostly white, suburb.
Their accounts are hardly unique. Fifty years after Massachusetts launched an ambitious voluntary school desegregation initiative, the yawning social disparities and tensions the plan aimed to ease remain — and painful incidents persist. The Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity program, better known as Metco, endeavored to expand educational opportunities for children in Boston and Springfield, reduce racial isolation in suburban districts, and increase diversity.
But when some 3,300 Metco students walk into those suburban schools, they encounter student peers who are predominantly white, and teachers and administrators who are overwhelmingly so, state data show. There are no requirements for the 37 suburban districts to diversify their teaching or administrative ranks. And the state’s Metco rules, which mostly cover reimbursement for the suburban districts, have long been silent about recommending or requiring training that would help teachers better understand cultural differences and help make Metco students feel more welcome.
Across Massachusetts, the average school district workforce — including teachers, administrators, and support staff — is about 10 percent people of color, according to state data. Yet Metco districts look even less diverse: All but a handful report that their staffs include fewer than 10 percent people of color.
“The schools in the Metco program are not held to any standards on school climate. They just get a group of students and kind of wing it,” said Ive Caraballo, a Boston parent whose 10th-grade daughter has attended Swampscott public schools since the first grade, through Metco.
Many schools in Massachusetts have reported an uptick in bigoted acts in the past year, but Caraballo said the sense of isolation felt by Metco children runs deeper.
“They feel like outcasts,“ she said, “like this is not their community.”
Ariannah Gervais, who graduated in June from Lincoln-Sudbury, said she often felt unwelcome. The 18-year-old Dorchester resident said she eventually made friends with students who grew up in the suburbs, people she refers to as “resident students,” but she often felt a chasm stretched between them.
“Political views and views on race separated us a lot. And sometimes when there were racial incidents with my [Metco] friends, I separated myself from resident students,” Gervais said. “I was able to balance the two, but it was kind of hard.”
Cliff Chuang, who oversees Metco in the state education department as a senior associate commissioner, acknowledges the program faces significant challenges. Chuang, who stepped into his role a year ago, said he spent his first months meeting with school superintendents, Metco administrators, and Metco directors, who are hired by schools districts to manage their programs.
“The Metco directors feel strongly as a group about the need to build cultural competency in the schools,” to help suburban teachers and administrators better understand students from different cultures, he said. “They shared with me they are often the only people of color” on the school’s staff.
Chuang has not set benchmarks for staff diversity or training in Metco districts. But he said he has started requiring those districts, as a condition for receiving their state reimbursement for Metco enrollment, to explain in writing the efforts they have made to diversify their workforce and to “ensure that the Metco children and their families feel welcomed and included.”
Chuang said the state’s tight budget has made it difficult to fully reimburse school districts for their Metco programs, let alone expand to more communities or help schools better train staff to understand the increasingly diverse students they receive.
Instead, Chuang’s vision is to tap the expertise of Metco directors, many of whom grew up attending Metco schools, to lead cultural sensitivity classes for other staff members.
Chuang also plans to coordinate training with Metco Inc., a Boston nonprofit that receives state money to operate as an umbrella agency for the Metco program. The organization refers city children to suburban districts from a waiting list, and provides tutoring, counseling, and summer programs. It also helps Metco directors troubleshoot problems in the schools. Yet neither the organization, nor state regulators, track the number of racial incidents reported in Metco school districts.
Charles Walker, president of Metco Inc.’s board, said he hopes to add an orientation program for parents in suburban districts to help bridge differences. But given the nonprofit’s upheaval — it must hire a new executive director and find a new location for its bulging Roxbury offices — Walker said training and orientation plans are probably two years off.
For Susan Eaton, the soul-searching over diversity and training in Metco sounds a lot like it did nearly two decades ago, when she wrote her doctoral thesis about the program while enrolled in Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. Eaton interviewed dozens of adults about their experiences growing up in the system, and the stories they shared largely resemble those from parents and students today.
“It makes me question whether we should be seeking different kinds of structures to achieve equality in our public schools,” said Eaton, now a Brandeis University professor.
Eaton said she is still a big believer in Metco’s ideals. But she wonders if creating a magnet school that would attract students from several communities — “so it wouldn’t be a white school that black children are going to” — might create a more welcoming environment for students of color.
Despite these hurdles, Metco students, who often spend hours each day bused to and from school, tend to be superachievers.
State data show they score higher on state MCAS exams than their counterparts in Boston and are significantly more likely to graduate from high school and attend college.
“The educational resources are great,” said Sammi Chen, who graduated last month from Lincoln-Sudbury and expects to major in biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Chen credits Lincoln-Sudbury’s Metco director for providing her the opportunity to conduct research for the past two years at Harvard Medical School, furthering her dream of attending medical school.
But Chen and other members of Lincoln-Sudbury’s Metco Student Council said they repeatedly felt a disconnect when they brought their concerns about racial tensions at the school to Bella Wong, the principal and superintendent.
They weren’t the only ones.
Quincee Day, a Lincoln-Sudbury graduate, said he also tried, unsuccessfully, to share his feelings of isolation.
Day, who lives in Lincoln, said he didn’t feel like an outsider until he hit high school, where he said some teachers and students assumed he was a Metco student bused from Boston because he is black.
The Lincoln school district, where Day went to school through eighth grade, is substantially more integrated than the Sudbury district and the two towns’ regional high school, Lincoln-Sudbury, state data show.
Day said teachers at the high school would sometimes ask if he needed financial assistance to go on a field trip because they assumed his family couldn’t afford it.
“People like to think of [Lincoln-Sudbury] as a school with great opportunities academically, and you can achieve a lot here, but people don’t talk about the [school] community, which is extremely toxic,” said Day, who graduated in June.
He felt so strongly about racial tensions at the high school, he asked that the caption under his yearbook picture reflect that. “I do not feel safe at this school,” it reads.
It wasn’t that Day felt he would be physically harmed. Instead, he feared he would be the target of verbal gibes or would be treated differently because of his race, he said.
Wong said she understands the students’ frustrations, but said she has worked hard since taking office four years ago to make all students feel more welcome. She said she has repeatedly sent letters to parents and students deploring bigoted behavior in the school, and has instituted regular assemblies, as well as a monthlong training each year focused on helping students and teachers talk about hate and discrimination.
“We have made progressive steps,” Wong said, “but the work is still ongoing.”
That is the conclusion from Brookline’s superintendent, too. Andrew Bott, a longtime principal in Boston’s schools, was hired for Brookline’s top spot a year ago.
The school district has reported the most diverse staff among the 37 Metco communities, with 14 percent people of color.
Bott started by hiring or promoting several people of color, launching classes about race and equity for staff, and meeting with students to discuss barriers that impede some from enrolling in advanced placement classes.
Bott also embraced a hiring practice Brookline administrators started the year before he took office, which focuses on identifying potential hires before vacancies exist as a way of ensuring a diverse applicant pool.
“We have to look at the structures in our system, even though they are created with the best of intentions, that may have disparate impacts on students,” Bott said. “It’s thinking of new ideas, and being open to trying new approaches.”