Metro

Metco aims for fairer admissions process

“We want this program to be accessible to everyone, and we want the program to be transparent,” said Milagros Arbaje-Thomas (above), chief executive officer of the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity.
Globe Staff/File
“We want this program to be accessible to everyone, and we want the program to be transparent,” said Milagros Arbaje-Thomas (above), chief executive officer of the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity.

For decades, a voluntary desegregation program that places Boston students in suburban schools has operated pretty much the same way: on a first-come, first-served basis, creating a frenzy among parents desperate to secure a stellar education for their children.

Many families head over to Metco’s Roxbury offices days after their children are born, birth certificate in hand. The program files applications in the order they are received for the requested school year, resulting in a waiting list of 15,000 children — almost half of whom are infants or toddlers — that gives families who are in the know a distinct advantage over those who apply a few months before a school year begins.

Now, Metco leaders are proposing a radical change to the application process in an effort to bring more fairness and transparency to bear: They want to limit the acceptance of applications to the months of October, November, and December preceding the next school year and use a randomized system of selecting applications for referral to suburban districts.

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In another big change, families would be able to fill out applications online instead of having to trek to the program’s offices, which often has been a barrier for those who lack transportation and live in neighborhoods farther away.

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“We want this program to be accessible to everyone, and we want the program to be transparent,” said Milagros Arbaje-Thomas, who became chief executive officer of the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity last year. “The program needs to modernize.”

Metco currently serves 3,100 students who attend 33 suburban school districts. Officials are in the process of reaching out to families on the waiting list to let them know about the proposed changes and that they may have to reapply.

A community meeting will be held on Feb. 25 at 6:30 p.m. at the Thelma D. Burns Building, 575 Warren St., Dorchester. The goal is to have the new process ready to place students for the 2020-21 school year.

Any changes would require approval from the program’s board of directors.

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One aspect of the application process would not change: Children would retain preference for admission to a school that an older sibling attends, a priority that is a common feature in the Boston school system and charter schools.

Latoya Gayle, executive director of Boston School Finder, a website that helps Boston parents make school selection choices by offering data on public, charter, and parochial schools, said the proposed changes sound encouraging, although she would like to see more details.

Eliminating mandatory office visits to fill out an application is nothing short of amazing, she said.

“We should be leveraging technology as much as possible to make school registration easier for parents,” she said.

City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George, chair of the council’s education committee, said that while she appreciates the proposed changes, “making Metco more transparent is not going to solve Boston’s history of using busing for desegregation.”

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“Our kids shouldn’t have to leave this city to get quality education,” she said in a statement. “We need to be spending our money investing in the quality of BPS so that all of our kids receive the same education as our suburban counterparts, not just a random selection.”

Founded in 1966, Metco has often been held up by state policy makers and researchers as a successful example of voluntary efforts to integrate public schools, which preceded the tumultuous period of court-ordered desegregation of the Boston school system. The state spends about $20 million annually to fund Metco in Boston and another program in Springfield, although suburban districts spend their own money on the program, too.

Metco in the Boston area has been so popular that it has had to do no advertising and doesn’t even have any printed brochures.

But some groups have gravitated to it more than others. The program largely enrolls black students and has failed to keep pace with the changing diversity of the city, which has seen an infusion of Latino and immigrant families over the decades as well as other ethnic and racial groups. There also is a larger representation of middle-class families in Metco than in the Boston Public Schools.

Arbaje-Thomas, who emigrated from the Dominican Republic at age 10 and attended school in Lynn, knows firsthand the benefits of being in the know. She learned about Metco years ago from her boss at the time, who urged her to sign up as soon as possible.

She took the advice to heart and immediately swung by the Metco offices each time she was discharged from the hospital after giving birth. Both her daughters attend Brookline schools. Her experience as a Metco parent contributed to her appointment as the program’s leader last year.

Arbaje-Thomas said she hopes the changes will result in an application pool — and ultimately referrals to suburban districts — more reflective of the city’s demographics. She said the program is creating a marketing and outreach strategy to target underserved populations, such as Vietnamese families, who are nearly nonexistent in the program.

Arbaje-Thomas said the proposed changes should also ease the workload of Metco staff, who currently must do significant digging to find some families on the waiting list when their number comes up because so many years have passed since they applied that addresses and phone numbers have changed.

Patrick Kimble, Metco board president, said he sees promise in the proposal.

“The proposed new system will take Metco to the next level and make it accessible to all children of color who wish to participate,” he said in a statement. “This program will be a national model for bringing children and young people . . . together and preparing them for a global society.”

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