Local community members got their first chance Monday night to weigh in on a new proposed admissions policy for the school desegregation program known as METCO, where suburban schools take in schoolchildren from Boston.
More than 50 people, some with kids in tow, made it to the meeting at the Thelma D. Burns community meeting hall in Dorchester. And their message was mostly one of concern about one of the new plans — switching from a waiting list system for admissions to a randomized lottery.
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For parents whose kids are currently on the waiting list, there were questions about whether they'd get any credit for the time spent waiting. "I need to know, are my two babies in jeopardy or do they have a chance to have that same opportunity they had last year?" said Kimbra Dennis.
But the biggest issue the community had with the idea of switching to a lottery system was that it's too easy. Many, like mom Latarsha Williams, said METCO is a commitment and making the effort to apply in person while your child is an infant is part of that dedication.
And others, like former METCO parent Linda Freeman, argued the education system in the area is already full of lottery systems. She said METCO's wait list was one way parents can get a little bit of certainty in their effort to give their child a good education.
"It's a way of leaving parents in anxiety and wondering if you're going to get it or not get it," she said. "It's bad enough when you apply in Boston Public Schools, and wondering what school your child is going to end up in."
The 33 suburban school districts that participate in the METCO system serve about 3,100 students. The program has roughly 300 openings for new students every year. And the waiting list to get one of those coveted spots is currently about 8,000 people deep.
Officials with METCO argue that a lottery system would make the process more equitable. They say the goal is to give people who may have recently moved to Boston or, for whatever reason, waited a few years to request a spot, a better chance of getting in. Right now, METCO does not advertise, so hearing about the program often happens through word of mouth in a community.
But not all of the proposed changes saw such sharp pushback at Monday night's meeting. Several community members said they welcomed a proposal to digitize the application so that parents can more easily track the status of their file as it moves through the system.
"Just making the whole process more clear and transparent benefits us all," said a Dorchester parent named Sharon. "Being able to go online and prove I did this is important."
Millie Arbaje-Thomas, METCO's CEO, explained that the current system is mostly paper-based, and it's not easy to track a family's application when they call to see where they stand.
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. People from different backgrounds and languages," she said. "It would allow us to reach people at all times 24 hours a day."
The changes to admissions that officials are proposing would be the first in the organization's 52-year history. Officials say they take public comment on their new proposals very seriously.
"This was important feedback for us to hear," said METCO board member Jon Sills. "It was certainly very moving to hear the grandfathering part in terms of parents who have invested for so many years, so we'll have to think about that."
If the board approves the updates, the new system would be rolled out in May and parents would get their first chance to enter the new lottery-based application system from October to December for placement in the 2020 school year.