Published in the May 20, 2019 edition.
By MARK SARDELLA
WAKEFIELD – Wakefield’s participation in the METCO program turns 50 this year, as the town’s schools joined the program in 1969.
Last week, Joel Villegas, in his ninth year as Wakefield’s METCO Director, provided the School Committee with an update on the program under his tenure.
The Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity was incorporated in 1966 as a voluntary desegregation program under the laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. METCO promotes the integration of suburban schools while affording the opportunity to Boston resident youth a suburban public education. There are 30-plus cities and towns in Massachusetts that participate in the METCO Program. Currently, there are over 3,000 students enrolled in METCO, including 72 students attending Wakefield schools. METCO also provides opportunities for closer understanding, cooperation, and sharing between urban and suburban parents, children, and citizens in the Metropolitan Boston area.
When he first started in Wakefield, Villegas noted, the only local elementary school that had METCO students was the Greenwood School. Slowly, he said, METCO students were added to the Woodville, Dolbeare and Walton Schools. This was possible due to support from school administrators, he said, plus increases in the budget and staffing.
Over the years, Villegas said, changes were also made in the way that students are bused to and from Wakefield. Some parents didn’t like the idea that middle and high school students were traveling on the same bus. So now, the high schoolers have their own bus and the middle and elementary school students travel together. Changes to the bus schedule were also made so that the same families were not impacted year after year by the earliest pickups and latest drop-off times.
Another busing-related improvement was the addition of a late bus every day so that METCO students can more easily participate in sports or other extracurricular activities. Villegas said that parents of those students are happy that this arrangement allows their children to fully participate in the school community.
This year, he said, the METCO “Family Friends” program was introduced in Wakefield. Family Friends Program is another supportive aspect of the METCO partnership wherein Wakefield families volunteer to become “partners” with Boston families. When a child enters one of the local schools via the METCO program, she/he is paired with a volunteer Wakefield family, usually with a child the same age or grade level. The Family Friends Program provides opportunities for Wakefield and Boston children and their parents to broaden relationships through the sharing of family, cultural and social experiences in their respective communities.
Another recent local addition, Villegas said, is the “Hermanos Mentoring Program,” whereby students at the high school visit and spend time with students at the elementary schools. The mentoring program has been a big hit with both elementary and high school students, Villegas said, and he is working to nail down a regular schedule for those visits.
This year, he said, 19 school staff members participated in a cultural self-assessment as a professional development exercise, an expansion of cultural proficiency discussions that began last year. Senior METCO students were also invited to share their experiences as students of color in Wakefield. Villegas described those conversations as “powerful,” adding that those conversations will continue next year as will the staff cultural assessment/professional development.
School Committee member Anne Fortier asked if this professional development program was part of Villegas’ job description. School Superintendent Douglas Lyons said that it was something that Villegas had voluntarily undertaken out of his passion for equity. Fortier advocated formalizing that professional development work as a practice of the Wakefield Public Schools.