New application system

State approves new METCO application process

METCO Board of Directors calls online lottery "transparent, equitable, efficient"

On April 30, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education approved the recommendation by the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity (METCO, Inc.) to overhaul the application process for Boston families, replacing a paper-based, first-come-first-served wait list with an online lottery system with a one-year transition. There will be a two-year phase-in process to give certain current wait-listed families priority in the new application process.

The historic METCO program, founded in 1966, places children from Boston into racially isolated schools in nearby suburbs to increase diversity. METCO currently works with 3,300 students annually, enrolled in 190 public schools in 33 suburban school districts.

METCO Inc.’s proposal to revise the application process stemmed from the acute need to modernize a waiting list system for Boston children that was unwieldy for families and METCO officials alike. The long-standing process used paper records to track more than 15,000 students seeking one of the approximately 300 available seats per year. Many families put their children’s names on the METCO wait list years before they were school-age, often at the time they were born.

The state’s approval of the METCO plan came after a year of intensive consideration, discussion, and public commentary sessions on the current application process. Beginning in Fall 2018, aspects of the system were vetted by parents, METCO directors at suburban schools, district superintendents, and community members in dozens of Information Sessions, online surveys, and a public Community Forum. In late March, the METCO, Inc., Board of Directors approved the final version of the application plan and submitted it to the Commissioner of Elementary & Secondary Education.

Families a “driving force”

“We recognize that change is never easy, but every applicant deserves a process that is transparent and equitable,” said METCO CEO Milly Arbaje-Thomas. “Families have told us how stressful the current system is—to drop off hard copy applications and then wait for years to learn if their children are referred. The METCO community is ready and eager to support our historic legacy with 21st-century operations.”

Patrick Kimble, METCO Board President, praised the work of METCO staff and board members and thanked the Massachusetts Department of Elementary & Secondary Education for providing a sounding board throughout the process. He stressed that families have been the driving force in the discussions. “METCO is one option among many in Boston, and families expect transparency and equity as they find the opportunities that are right for them,” he said. “This modernized application process will first and foremost ensure that all eligible Boston children who want to participate in METCO have an equitable chance to be referred.  It will also allow parents to access clear and accurate information about their application status so they can make timely and informed plans for their children’s education.”

Immediate changes

METCO permanently stopped accepting new applicants to the wait list on April 22, 2019, shortly after the state approved its plan. Beginning on October 2, 2019, school-age children (new or on the current wait list) will be eligible to apply using the new METCO online application. That application window will close on December 31, 2019. (Parents who need help with the online application can receive assistance at METCO headquarters.)

All applications submitted during this window will then be verified and assigned a lottery number, Arbaje-Thomas said, giving them an equal chance at referral to suburban districts as open seats become available in each grade.

She added that a complete application does not guarantee enrollment in a suburban district, which was also true in the past. Any applicants who are not referred for fall 2020 may apply the following year if they would like to be considered again, she explained.

Two-year transition period

The newly approved plan was revised after a Community Forum in February based on feedback on an earlier proposal, which would have dissolved the wait list completely in 2019. Arbaje-Thomas said that, rather than moving to a full lottery immediately as was proposed at the Forum, several hundred families on the current wait list will receive “Priority Status” for enrollment in the school year 2019-20 if they complete updated, online applications. Those eligible for Priority Status are:

  • Students entering grades 1-10 who completed applications in 2019 but were not ultimately referred,
  • Students on the Wait List who will be entering Kindergarten in 2020 (if they complete an application online this fall), and
  • Siblings of students currently enrolled in METCO school districts.

Beginning in 2020 (enrolling in the 2021-22 school year), Priority Status will only be given to siblings of students currently enrolled in METCO school districts. All other applicants will be assigned a lottery number, and any previous Wait List status will be dissolved.

Over the past several months, METCO staff members have reached out to thousands of families on the Wait List via postal mail, telephone, email, and public meetings, soliciting feedback on paper forms and online. Responses to the new plan—gathered at public information sessions over the past six months—have been positive by a ratio of 7 to 1. Here are a few examples:

  • “I feel this new plan gives everyone an opportunity for a fair chance to get into METCO.”
  • “It seems the new changes will offer more fairness across the board.”
  • “I’m so glad to see that METCO is trying to have a fair system for each child and parent that wants the same opportunity as others.”

Review the complete METCO revised application process approved by the Massachusetts DESE here.