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Published in Print: March 17, 1999, as Storm Brews in Mass. as a District Questions Integration Program

Storm Brews in Mass. as a District Questions Integration Program

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The quiet bedroom community of Lynnfield, Mass., is attracting unaccustomed notoriety after a move by its school board to reconsider its part in a transfer program that places black, Hispanic, and Asian-American students from Boston in surrounding suburbs.

Citing the shaky academic performance of some transfer students and 15 years of flat funding from the state, the five-member Lynnfield board began voicing reservations about the voluntary integration program earlier this year.

Several weeks ago, the issue burst into public view when one board member publicly said the time had come to pull out of the program, which is run by the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity Inc., or METCO.

Last week, the board approved a moratorium on enrolling new METCO students while the 2,000-student district reviews the program and recommends changes, a process slated to be completed by late summer. The 4-1 vote came at a March 9 meeting attended by some 500 METCO supporters, including sign-toting Lynnfield youngsters, teachers, parents, and community members, as well as transfer students and their families.

Board members and the district's superintendent stressed that they did not intend to abandon the program, and in fact, might end up expanding it. "We're optimistic that we're going to have some changes that are significant enough to allow more students to come," Superintendent Richard Palermo said in an interview.

But at least some METCO supporters were not convinced. "To me, the action just shows that they have no faith in the program," said Cynthia A. Martin, a Boston mother with a daughter at Lynnfield High School. "It was a slap in the face."

Debate 'Not Pretty'

Thirty-two Boston suburbs collectively enroll more than 3,100 city students through the program, including 41 in Lynnfield. An additional 160 METCO students from Springfield, Mass., attend school in that city's suburbs, and the 33-year-old program's waiting list extends to 15,000 names.

Since the inception of the state-financed program in 1966, METCO, a privately run agency, has dropped some districts. But no communities have themselves opted to stop accepting transfer students from Boston, METCO officials say. That was one reason why initial reports of Lynnfield's second thoughts attracted so much attention.

Hoping to whittle down the program's waiting list, METCO surveyed participating suburbs late last year on whether they could accept more students if state funding were increased.

In Lynnfield, a mostly white community about 20 miles north of Boston, that appeal touched off a debate on the school board about the program's track record.

The discussion that ensued "was not pretty," said Pamela Scantalides, the sole board member to vote against the enrollment freeze. "We were obviously singling out this entire group of kids."

Among the data reviewed, she said, were the METCO students' grade point averages and their scores on state tests first administered last spring. On average, she said, the Boston transfers scored lower than children who live in Lynnfield.

Reports of the discrepancy led to speculation that some board members might view the transfers as depressing the district's test results. But Mr. Palermo and Janice E. Confalone, the school board's chairwoman, said such speculation was unfounded. They noted that only a small fraction of Lynnfield test-takers were METCO students and that the district's overall scores were strong.

The test issue "didn't factor into it," Ms. Confalone said.

Not Making the Grade?

Ms. Confalone and Mr. Palermo said their concerns about some METCO students include motivational problems and weak grades, especially at the high school. The superintendent said the grades of 12 of the 22 high school students averaged lower than a C.

"Socially, as far as bringing diversity to our community, we've been successful," Mr. Palermo said. "But academically, I don't think we're doing the best we can for these kids."

To address those and other problems, the officials said the district would review such issues as the METCO admissions process, the level of academic support for transfer students, the role of students' local "host families," and the responsibilities of their parents.

At the same time, the district will join the effort to secure more funding from the state for the $12 million-a-year program, the superintendent said.

Adreenne Law-Hampton, the director of the Lynnfield program, said last week that she remained skeptical of the upcoming review. "The fact is that the superintendent and the school committee humiliated and embarrassed the Boston kids," she said. "To me, it just felt like they were buying more time before they put us on the chopping block."

Vol. 18, Issue 27, Page 8

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