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Metco students on 'positive track'

Study says they outperform peers

By Laura J. Nelson
Globe Correspondent / June 16, 2011

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Public school students who commute from urban areas to the suburbs through the state’s Metco program outperform their peers at the schools they left behind and frequently, the state average, according to a new study.

The study, released yesterday by the Pioneer Institute of Public Policy Research and the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, details a “positive track record’’ of students enrolled in the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity, a state-funded voluntary program that buses more than 3,300 K-12 students from Boston and Springfield to 40 suburban school districts.

The program is part of the state’s Racial Imbalance Act, which promotes racial and ethnic diversity in public schools.

The report, the first detailed look at Metco student performance in nearly 10 years, found that more than 90 percent of the students graduate and go to college and that they score higher on standardized tests than students at the urban schools they left behind.

More than half of Metco students, who board buses and trains every morning as early as 6 a.m., are from low-income families. Three-fourths are African-American or Latino.

Often, they go to schools where at least 90 percent of the students are white, the report said, and in several districts, nearly the entire African-American and Latino student populations are Metco students.

“It is not clear why Metco, which is popular among families, has a strong track record and established commitment within local communities, receives little to no public endorsements and continues to suffer budget cuts,’’ authors Susan Eaton and Gina Chirichigno wrote in the report.

The authors called on Massachusetts to consider expanding the program and its funding. Currently, school districts receive about $4,900 per Metco student.

They also urged the state to give suburban districts more incentives to enroll Metco students, since the program’s enrollment capacity depends on which districts volunteer.

“We’re thankful for all that [Metco has] accomplished,’’ Jonathan Palumbo, spokesman for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said in an e-mail. “We have . worked hard to protect the funding that they receive.’’

Right now, Metco is funded through three sources: an allotment from the state for each pupil, currently $3,100 a year; reimbursements to districts for transportation costs; and Chapter 70 state money, given to districts based on how many students are enrolled.

Metco’s budget fell from $20.2 million in 2008 to $16.5 million in 2011. “We’re not the only ones who received reductions in light of the crisis over the last couple of years,’’ said Metco associate director John M. Shandorf. “But I have to feel optimistic that we’ll recoup that money.’’

Officials declined to comment further because they had not yet seen the report.

Metco places 350 to 400 students each year, and the enrollment process, from waiting list to classroom, can take five years. One-quarter of parents signed up their children before their first birthday.

Metco students regularly scored proficient or advanced on reading and language arts, the report said. The achievement gap between Metco and suburban students shrinks as students get older.

“We’re really trying to move our school district forward at an accelerated rate, and we welcome all students,’’ said Matt Wilder, spokesman for the Boston public schools.

The report is not an entirely reliable litmus test for Metco’s success, the authors warned, because the program is self-selecting, so parents who put children on the waiting lists might have also influenced their children to be better students in urban schools.

A watertight survey would compare Metco students to an identical group in urban schools, they said.

Laura J. Nelson can be reached at lnelson@globe.com.