Metro

New Metco leader is a social justice advocate with big plans for expansion

For many years, Milagros Arbaje-Thomas was a strong voice for low-income and immigrant residents in Boston.
Dina Rudick/Globe Staff
For many years, Milagros Arbaje-Thomas was a strong voice for low-income and immigrant residents in Boston.

Milagros Arbaje-Thomas believes in Metco — so much so that she enrolled her two girls in the program, sending them to school in Brookline.

But she begins to tear up when she recounts how excited her older daughter was to have a black math teacher last year in the sixth grade.

“I said, ‘Why, honey?’ ’’ she recalled. The daughter responded, “ ‘Because she looks like me and because she likes math. And I like math.’ ”

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Now, as Arbaje-Thomas takes over as chief executive of Metco Inc., the voluntary school desegregation program, one of her many goals is to promote more diversity throughout the organization’s partner school districts.

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In an interview, she said she wants to take Metco to the next level, moving beyond placing urban students in suburban schools. She wants Metco to aggressively raise money, reconnect with its alumni, and expand support for students, while also ensuring that Metco preserves state funding. Under her leadership, she said, Metco will join any ongoing conversations in the districts on implementing a more racially sensitive curriculum or adding more teachers of color to their staffs.

“I don’t want to [just] place students in the districts,’’ she said. “I want to have relationships in the districts. I want to be that voice for the children.”

Barely 5 feet tall and fresh off a triumphant battle with breast cancer, the 44-year-old social justice advocate from Hyde Park has for many years stood out as a mighty voice for low-income and immigrant residents in Boston. In her previous roles, she created an immigration clinic for citizenship, launched a National Hispanic Heritage Month celebration, and helped lead an effort to increase civic engagement in Mattapan.

The Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity was created in 1966 amid the school desegregation movement and after boycotts over deep inequities in Boston Public Schools. Some Boston parents began driving their children to fill seats in the suburbs.

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Today, more than 3,200 Metco students are transported daily to at least 37 school districts and 190 schools in Greater Boston and Springfield.

“I see Metco Inc. as a center of gravity for the work that is happening in the districts,’’ she said. “We’ve come this far, we’ve made progress, but how much better can we be?”

Ninety-eight percent of Metco students graduate from high school after four years, compared to 86 percent of all state students, officials said. Metco students not only diversify schools but forge lasting friendships with suburban students, families who host them, and communities where the schools are located.

Funded by the state, Metco has a budget of about $21 million. But Metco Inc., the administrative arm, has been fighting to preserve state dollars and finding independent ways to better support its students, officials said. While Metco students have thrived in many ways, they have also endured cultural isolation, stigma associated with urban areas, and racial insensitivity that can explode into crises.

In moving forward, Metco Inc. hopes to become a fund-raising powerhouse. It wants partners, such as foundations, corporations, and educational institutions, to join its quest, which includes having its own building. Currently, Metco’s offices are in the Dimock Center health complex in Roxbury.

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Charles E. Walker Jr., the board president, said that when he took over two years ago, the board was “fractured” and “dysfunctional.” Metco has fought criticism about its relevance and accusations that it cherry picks only the best students of color.

Some racist comments about Metco have been especially harsh. Walker recalled the 2003 comments lobbed by two WEEI hosts when they likened an animal that had escaped from Franklin Park Zoo to “a Metco gorilla” heading to Lexington — triggering widespread outrage.

And in 2016, amid its 50th-year celebration, Metco was thrust into the public spotlight, as the board and its then-executive director Jean McGuire clashed behind the scenes over whether she should step down after 43 years of leading Metco. She eventually retired.

A revived board is in place, and, according to Walker, it hopes to work with Arbaje-Thomas to develop a “more mature and dynamic organization’’ that elevates the Metco brand and develops vital social, cultural, and academic support services for its students.

“Now we’re fighting our way back,’’ said Walker.

Arbaje-Thomas said she understands the enormity of that task. Metco needs money to expand its role and gain a bigger voice.

Arbaje-Thomas, who is Latina, said she and her husband, who is black, understand the plight of Metco parents who send their children to predominantly white schools and have had to give them “the talk” about championing their race and heritage.

“We talk about race every single day,’’ said Arbaje-Thomas, adding that she is inspired by her mother. “I tell them make sure people know where you are from. Talk about your history, talk about your family, talk about your heritage. Someone has to have the conversation.”

Metco officials were noticeably silent amid calls for teacher diversity in suburban schools and when a video surfaced late last year showing three Brookline High School students laughing while repeatedly using an epithet that disparages black people. The incident triggered a student walkout.

Arbaje-Thomas, who was interviewing during the controversy, said that as long as racial incidents continue to occur in suburban schools, Metco’s job is not done. But she needs allies.

Arbaje-Thomas was given the expanded title of chief executive, a sign of her new role. She starts the job Feb. 5 at a salary of $145,000.

“If anybody has a shot of this, pulling Metco up — to get it where it should be a visible, credible alternative program — it’s Milly,’’ said John Drew, president of Action for Boston Community Development.

Arbaje-Thomas was born in the Dominican Republic and immigrated to the United States as a young girl. She got her start as a teenage summer jobs councilor at ABCD and eventually became director of several ABCD centers, including the Parker Hill/Fenway Neighborhood Service Center, where she instituted the immigration and citizenship program.

Arbaje-Thomas said she left ABCD in 2013 to spend more time with her two young girls. Her husband, William Thomas, is the principal at Charlestown High School.

She is an active parent in Brookline, said Superintendent Andrew Bott. Last year, she led an effort for a district-wide National Hispanic Heritage month celebration that included a banner outside every Brookline school and Latino food on the school menu.

“She listens, she brings ideas together, but she pushes really hard to get done what she set out to achieve, and I think that is so important,’’ Bott said.

Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @MeghanIrons.