TeachLab with Justin Reich

Milly Arbaje-Thomas

Episode Summary

Milly Arbaje-Thomas joins Justin Reich to discuss the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity (METCO), a voluntary school integration program in Boston, Massachusetts. They’ll focus on METCO’s mission, its underlying values, and Milly’s personal experience with the program as a former METCO parent and as its current CEO.

Episode Notes

Milly Arbaje-Thomas joins Justin Reich to discuss the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity (METCO), a voluntary school integration program in Boston, Massachusetts. They’ll focus on METCO’s mission, its underlying values, and Milly’s personal experience with the program as a former METCO parent and as its current CEO.


About Our Guest: Milly Arbaje-Thomas

Milly Arbaje-Thomas is the CEO of METCO, which is a voluntary school integration program here in Boston. Prior, Milly managed neighborhood antipoverty programs at Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD) for 15 years. As Deputy Director of ABCD Field Operations she provided leadership to 14 neighborhood sites and is credited with transforming those sites into integrated, full-service case management organizations serving the low-income community.


Additional Resources for Teachers and other Listeners

https://metcoinc.org/ - Learn more about METCO

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7I65Ru4ZM9c - WGBH segment on METCO funding

https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2019/02/18/metco-students-outperforming-those-bps-charter-schools/W4jpFqnOSFxbdvsJu30jXN/story.html - Recent article about METCO performance





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Episode Transcription

Justin Reich: School segregation remains one of the most persistent and shameful features of American education in cities all across the country like right here in Boston, students of color are concentrated in urban schools and white students predominantly attend affluent schools in the suburban ring. So what can we do about it?

Justin Reich: From the Teaching Systems Lab at MIT, this is Teach Lab, a podcast about the art and craft of teaching. I'm Justin Reich. Today we talk with Milly Arbaje-Thomas. Milly is the CEO of METCO, which is a voluntary school integration program right here in Boston. METCO was founded in 1966 at the height of the civil rights movement. The goal of the program is to reduce racial isolation in suburban schools and increase access to educational opportunities among Boston students of color.

Milly Arbaje-Thomas: So one of the things that I see many superintendents doing that I love is that when they were... in terms of that in that welcoming environment, they are really being intentional at saying, "These are our students. This is not the METCO students, these are not the Boston students, these are students who happen to reside in the city of Boston."

Justin Reich: Every day over 3000 students leave their homes in Boston and take a bus to attend one of 33 school districts in the suburbs that participate in the program outside of Boston. Milly Arbaje Thomas is herself a METCO parent. We talked about how the program works and about the challenges of creating a truly inclusive school environment for all students. Before you were the METCO CEO, your family was a METCO family, your kids, can you tell us a little bit about your original involvement with the METCO program?

Milly Arbaje-Thomas: Yes. I mean, one of the things that motivated me to be part of the METCO program when I learned about it, because when you... I didn't grow up in this country or even in Boston, so I found out about it through word of mouth and I was told about the benefits of the program in terms of all the extra curricular activities that it provides in the suburban communities and I really wanted my children to have a number of opportunities to get involved in afterschool. My daughters love the school play, they love instruments, and those were things that I wanted to ensure that they received, but also the benefits of having that diversity that we bring into the table. I always remind my own daughters too, don't forget to talk about who they are, who their families are, where we come from, when we visit our home land what is that like, what is her language like.

Milly Arbaje-Thomas: Never shy away from speaking the language that your mother speaks. And I think that there's a value to be able to bring that to a suburban district who was usually isolated from a diverse number of experiences as it relates to how kids are growing up. I'm a parent there since kindergarten, my kids are in fifth and eighth grade in the METCO program and when I actually signed up, I definitely did not know that I was going to end up in this role, but some of the work that I was doing in that community around equity work, through my PTO, through my principal, through the school district, around celebrating differences and celebrating diversity were some of the things that motivated me to be in this role now and how people approached me about this role was because of my involvement in my own school district.

Justin Reich: So you've been the CEO of METCO for 16 months now, what do you feel like are some of the most important strengths that the METCO program has right now? If you were to sort of point out some of the kind of shining examples of where METCO is really working at its best, what are some of the things that that... what are the ways that that looks like?

Milly Arbaje-Thomas: I mean I think one of the things that I see happening is the level of accountability that districts are trying to have with themselves around really changing their practices, both in the classroom, in their hiring practices, in their discipline strategies and that's one of the things that we, even when I go out to speak to school leadership and the school committee members, I let them know, where I ask of them, if you are signing on to be a part of the METCO program year after year, it has to be more than just having students of color in the classroom.

Milly Arbaje-Thomas: To me, it's no longer just the inclusion but the welcoming environment. And that means what are you doing in all levels of your school to ensure that people of color are feeling like they're part of the school community.

Justin Reich: And when schools are not at that level yet or when kids have experiences where they're included but not welcome, what's the evidence for that for you? How would you be able to sort of diagnose like, okay, you've let these students in but they're not really being fully integrated into the community?

Milly Arbaje-Thomas: Well, I mean the evidence says that students and families, they get themselves, so I mean one of the things that's happening is that districts are truly committed to this work and they really want to do right by the program and they want all the benefits that come with the diversity in their classrooms. But they also admit that there's a lot of work to be done. There's a lot of schools that are looking deeper into doing some restorative justice practice they're looking into professional development for their teachers, they're being more intentional about the hiring that they do.

Milly Arbaje-Thomas: But the reality is that there is a level of isolation that happens within the program. We all know that part of a desegregation program, you're one of the few people that are commuting from another district into that classroom and sometimes you're just one out of two people in the classroom that's a person of color. So that's going to always come with feeling isolated, maybe not feeling welcomed, and is very common sometimes for students to go through their whole life and still not have made a best friend in the district.

Milly Arbaje-Thomas: But we know that that's a problem and we're trying to find intentional practices to remind communities that now you have the program here, what else can we do to ensure that that welcoming piece is happening? But the parents and the students both have said that they don't feel like they belong sometimes.

Justin Reich: Yeah. I mean that's powerful and that's tragic to have all this effort, there's so much effort that goes into bringing people in and recognizing that sort of getting students in the door historically all white places is only the beginning of a process of integration that it's really trying to figure out what is it that would mean that we're not just allowing kids to be here by making space for them, but really making them an integral part of our community, giving them all of the ways to... the way that you described with your own daughter to bring their own backgrounds, their own strengths, their own assets and talents into the discussion and also have communities be really active in saying, "We're so glad you're here and there's so much that you can... we haven't even discovered yet what it is that you can bring, but we know that there's so much and we want to be able to tap into that and explore that."

Justin Reich: So as you're working with districts, and it sounds like a lot of... it sounds like you're going to them and they're coming to you asking this question like, okay, what does the next level of work look like? How do we go from inclusion to welcoming? What are the big categories that you're working on those schools with? What are the kinds of things that you are saying, "Okay if you want to get to the next level of work, we need to be focusing on these kinds of areas."

Milly Arbaje-Thomas: So a couple of things, one of the first things that I'm working on, it's just really trying to relive the mission of the METCO program. A lot of people assume that they know what the program is, but they have a lot of misconceptions about the funding, about who is supposed to serve, a lot of people think is only for low income students from the city of Boston, that is only for black low income students, that it's actually the district has to pick up all of the costs. So one of the first things that I'm doing right now is reeducating the leadership, the parents that live in the community, the school committee members that have... this happened in the 60s so there's been a lot of changes since then.

Milly Arbaje-Thomas: First I want people to understand why the program exists, why it came about to begin with, what is the purpose of a desegregation program and what can your district do to become better at that? So the first thing for me has been education and everywhere that I go, people think that they know what the METCO program is but when I start breaking it down [inaudible 00:07:59] there is some state funding that comes to the district and how everything works and that we're not income-based for a reason because we do not want to reinforce the stereotype that every single person of color is low income. And that's very important to us that diversity of experience for a person of color that you can meet someone that's equally a homeowner or lives in public housing, someone that went to college and didn't go to college, that is very important to me for people to see that we come in all shapes and forms. So that's one of the areas.

Milly Arbaje-Thomas: The other areas is trying to find out how do we involve the suburban families? To me, they're one of our biggest advocates. They are the ones that are putting into place our elected officials at the State House, they are the ones that have the voice of the people that have to put this line item in place. So I'm trying to figure out how to help them to organize locally so that they can create friends of METCO program that will be the fundraising arm of the METCO program or another segment is the family exchange program formerly known as the host program. But I want to change it to the exchange because I want it to be equally beneficial for both families to come back and forth. And some of our-

Justin Reich: And the family exchange program is a way that as it would evolve that suburban families would be able to have a special connection with one particular METCO students so that there was someone in town who they really feel like they knew and could look after them and could... if something ran late, could help them in those kinds of things, but that also those suburban kids feel like they have a connection with a family in Boston who's probably from a different background, a different culture.

Milly Arbaje-Thomas: Yeah, exactly that. And that is one of the ways that our kids can feel like they're welcomed. If they have a house that they can go to, a friend that they can be with, they can participate in late supports, in the school play, if the night is too long, they can stay in their community. And then I'm trying to find intentional ways to bring the suburb and families to Boston through a partnership that I have with Arts Emerson and the Boston, it's called the Boston Summer Arts Institute. They're giving me money to actually invite families for plays that have to do around race relations followed by a dialogue and a reception. So those are intentional ways to use social arts to really bring our communities together.

Milly Arbaje-Thomas: But our districts do have, a few districts do have the friends of METCO that fundraise and have the family host programs, but very few still have it in existence and some have never had it at all. So one of my goals is to create a blueprint for every district that wants to do this and wants to have a uniform way of implementation that they can come to us and we can support them in that process.

Justin Reich: It's really interesting to hear you talk about it from this community perspective because I think even for people who are living in communities that don't have an intentional desegregation program don't have things like METCO, it sounds like part of your argument is that creating welcoming communities that support all of the diverse... creating welcoming schools that support all of the kids that are in there can in part begin by having community or is organized around that goal to have whatever neighborhood you're in, whether it has METCO or not, to be able to say, "Are there a group of us that are really committed as citizens, as participants and there is families involved in the school system to make sure that our kids... that all of our kids feel really welcome and included in school?"

Milly Arbaje-Thomas: Yeah, and just this week, two days ago, I was in Hingham at a school committee meeting where I got to present about the program. Following that meeting like seven suburban parents came after me and we started having a conversation. They said, "We want to organize, we want to raise money from METCO, we want to advocate for the program, we want to start a family exchange program." And they were saying, "But we've never done this in this community. How can you help us and support us?"

Milly Arbaje-Thomas: And I was so excited because that's exactly the kind of parents that were trying to find, because they will be the ones that continue living out the mission of the program and ensuring that that suburban community never says no to the METCO program. Because until we have that complete integration in this communities where there's interracial marriages, where there's the red lining doesn't exist, where there's housing that people could afford, then we can say, "Okay, we have reached our goal, but we're not anywhere close to accomplishing that right now." So that's one of the things that I really want to do is help suburban families to feel like they own the program, that is take some ownership and take some responsibility for creating that welcoming environment because we don't own the houses there, we don't elected those elected officials. So you have to go to the people that have that kind of power and it's the suburban families.

Justin Reich: Let's talk about inside the schools next because that's another important constituency. So when teachers, when school administrators, when you're helping them go to the next level of work, of going from a base level of integration to a real kind of welcoming community, what work are you doing with administrators and teachers in classrooms, in extra curricular programs? What does that look like when it's happening really well or is it not happening well enough now where you see room for growth and improvement?

Milly Arbaje-Thomas: Yeah, so traditionally the METCO office here in Boston, which I refer to now as our headquarters because we're trying to hold ourselves accountable to a higher level of support to our districts. We've been traditionally known as the referral base where people come and apply and we prefer to the districts. So a lot of the things that I'm working on right now are things that we have not done before from a central perspective.

Milly Arbaje-Thomas: Maybe individual districts were doing this, but from a central perspective we're pushing an agenda, this is something fairly new because I have a brand new team of people dedicated to different areas that we want to pursue. One of those areas is director of diversity, equity and inclusion and her job, she started in January, so she's already been sought out by districts who want to do professional development around unconscious bias, around how to have equitable practices, restorative justice. So she's been going around and doing that. We're having also our big conference this coming June and then we're inviting strategically teachers, teachers that can make an impact on what happens in the classroom and providing them this professional development opportunity.

Milly Arbaje-Thomas: And we're also working on a foundation that hopefully by the time this air maybe by then this would already be a done deal, who wants to support a cohort of teachers that we will identify that will apply into the METCO teacher cohort program. And they will receive support for one year in terms of how do they solve a problem that has to do with equity within their own classrooms. They will have to have permission from their principal and they will have to have air time under school to ensure that what they're doing is not just impacting and effecting their classroom, but their whole entire school community.

Justin Reich: And what's your vision for what new practices might look like? So if I was a teacher who is considering applying to the METCO teacher cohort program, after I've completed that program, how will my classroom look different? How will my teaching look different? Sort of concretely, what would we be able to see teachers doing if they were taking actions that were getting us closer to what these welcoming classrooms might look like?

Milly Arbaje-Thomas: Right. So one of the things would be the curriculum, looking at the curriculum. I'll tell you from my own personal experience, I was frustrated for years as a parent, that every single time we talked about the Spanish curriculum, we talked about Spain and Mexico. My own daughters challenged me and said, "Mommy, I never hear about your country, how come this is never something that we talk about in our language courses." So that's something that-

Justin Reich: And your family is from the Dominican Republic, which for our listeners who are not in Boston, there are... people might be familiar with, so Boston is famous Dominican citizens, but there are lots of people from the-

Milly Arbaje-Thomas: Red sox.

Justin Reich: Yeah, red sox, but there's lots of people from the Dominican Republic that it should be in... we would hope in a brighter future, all of the families in Eastern Massachusetts when they think like, oh, what Latin American countries do people from Boston come from? Well, they come from the Dominican Republic, they come from Puerto Rico, they come from-

Milly Arbaje-Thomas: Right. And when that was happening I was frustrated because I wanted my children to be able to see themselves and their mother reflected in their curriculum. So number one is that the curriculum has to be reflective of the people that you serve minimally. That the assignments that you give are not assignments that are not discriminatory. There was another assignment also that had to do with defending slavery. So I found that to be very offensive. I was like, how are we tell our children to defend a moral dilemma? I said, "We will never do this for the Holocaust. We'll never ask somebody to defend the Holocaust and give me the pros and cons." But yet we were doing it for the pros and cons of slavery.

Milly Arbaje-Thomas: So in the classroom I expect that the curriculum should be changing, it should be reflective of the people that are there. They should be able to see themselves there and the story that's told should be a story that should be told from the right lens. So that and as well as discipline strategies in the classroom, a lot of the times our students of color right away have a different kind of discipline strategy than what we would do for a suburban student or a white student, so we want to implement restorative justice practices in all of our communities. And again, the big ones already have it because they're big districts so they actually have a lot of funding to put into this, but the smaller communities are just trying to figure out like how do I do discipline strategies that are fair and equitable and how do I not implement my own bias when it relates to this? And I expect also-

Justin Reich: And could you say little bit more to define restorative justice, maybe not all of our listeners will-

Milly Arbaje-Thomas: So I mean restorative justice is something that is becoming very popular, at least here in Massachusetts. And right now the institute that's doing the main training for that is Suffolk University. And what it is that whenever there's a problem that has happened that you create a circle and everybody gets to talk about how they felt and what you said it did affected the other person. And the problem is not resolved until everybody feels like they've been heard and like the issue was addressed and basically whoever was hurt, the other person has to do something to restore that relationship of pain that they've cost the other person.

Milly Arbaje-Thomas: So it also prevents a lot of suspensions and a lot of more severe discipline strategies that our students of color, especially boys tend to get that at higher rates than other students.

Justin Reich: Restorative justice is one important piece, what are some of these other building blocks?

Milly Arbaje-Thomas: So the other piece that I think is really important for the districts to work on is teacher diversity. I think if you are going to really embrace the METCO program and everything that it stands for, it also has to be representative in your classrooms. So we hope to see more teachers of color that people can truly identify with and also for students to be able to see that there are teachers out there that look different. I mean, in my own experience, my daughter didn't have a... her first math teacher of color was in the sixth grade and I remember how excited she was when she first was assigned to this teacher.

Milly Arbaje-Thomas: I remember walking into the classroom and seeing that she was the woman of color for my parent teacher conference. I never knew she was the person of color. And the first thing that I said when I walked in, I was like, "Oh my God, you're a black woman." And she was like, "Is that a good or a bad thing?" I go, "This is excellent." I was like I'm so happy because she was on maternity leave when the school year started, so I didn't know who the teacher was going to end up being. And I think that's another very important area that we can look at for our students to feel welcomed.

Justin Reich: In your students' experience in the experience of other METCO students who have really great experiences, can you think of what are the... beyond choosing curriculum, what are the concrete practices that teachers do in their day to day improvisational interactions with students that are this kind of next level of work towards welcoming? What does it look like when the... what are the actions that the very best METCO teachers take to make students feel like they're part of and they're co-creating the community?

Milly Arbaje-Thomas: Yeah. And that particular question, because I'm not at the classroom level yet except from my own experiences, I've been working mostly with administrators, and with the school community-

Justin Reich: We can answer it with administrators or school committee members too. What are the administrators doing in buildings that really sort of make... that make a difference in classroom teaching?

Milly Arbaje-Thomas: So one of the things that I've seen many superintendents doing that I love is that when they were... in terms of that welcoming environment, they are really being intentional at saying, "These are our students. This is not the METCO students, these are not the Boston students, these are students who happen to reside in the city of Boston." So I've seen a lot of people begin to change how they refer to the program so that it doesn't feel like it's separate and distinct, but it's only... What changes is your residence but we're still going to treat you the same. And we've seen-

Justin Reich: We have some kids who live in the North side of town, we have some kids who live in the South side of town, we have some kids who live in an adjacent town.

Milly Arbaje-Thomas: Yeah, I love it when I hear superintendents saying those are our children, we're going to do whatever we can to educate them and to support them so that is something that I've been hearing a lot since I got in the job and I've been really appreciative of that. The superintendents have also asked me for more professional development. They said their budgets have allowed for enough professional development around diversity, equity, and inclusion. They might do one big thing a year, so one of the things that they're asking of me, can you be the one to provide the additional support in between our own trainings so that our teachers are not just getting it once a year to check off the box that they have received that.

Justin Reich: And you've only been in the job for 16 months, but have you, and maybe you get these questions all the time, what do you feel like towns and districts outside of Boston, outside of the METCO area can learn from the METCO program? What could anybody who's listening to this conversation say, "An important lesson from the story of METCO, an important thing that we have to share as an example to anyone regardless of where they're living." What would some of those things be?

Milly Arbaje-Thomas: Well, I would say that nobody should be educated in isolation. And this is one of the messages that I'm trying to tell my own city, the city of Boston, because whenever you have programs like this, it takes students out of the Boston public schools and brings [inaudible 00:21:44] elsewhere. There's always some tension or some opinions about why are we doing this? But one of the things that I've told my own... that I've been beginning to tell my own community is like, "Listen, you have to be proud of this program. It was birthed out of this city, it's still alive 52 years, you are part of the solution of breaking down racism, stereotypes, you're creating friendship that wouldn't otherwise be formed, and who knows if you've impacted the thought and the thinking of that particular student because of that friendship?"

Milly Arbaje-Thomas: And also we're preparing students of color to enter the workforce and be able to succeed and compete in a workforce that's majority white because they've spent their whole entire life being educated around this community. So we're building confidence, we're creating them for jobs that are going to be competitive and those are the things that I think can happen out of an inclusive and integrated experience. So that's why I think that the METCO program is in a position to become a national model. I mean, people already see us nationally and when they always find us and there is books and research and even a movie about us, but I think we need to make sure that we are recognized as a school integration program that is successful and something that is needed.

Milly Arbaje-Thomas: And I've had other States already called me. I had St. Louis and I've also had New Jersey spend some time with me to talk about how they can actually either start a METCO program in their own city because they see the segregation is severe or someone that has an existent program that's phasing out, they reached out to me to see how do we keep this alive. But I mean, I just loved the mission of the programming, to me, it's not even about the conditions of the schools in Boston, it's about the need to integrate communities and that we should be... that this is breaking down racial tensions and racial barriers in a country right now where things are extremely tensed and those children will tell you that they have changed their mind about that particular group of people because of the friendship that they made. So I think this is a solution to having a better tomorrow.

Justin Reich: And I think that solution can be one that it took a form in METCO with busing with city suburban relations but one of the things that I really love from this conversation maybe it's the notion of those Hingham parents could be parents in any community in the country who are asking themselves, we could be doing more in our community to be having a more integrative future, what are the steps that we can take? I think it doesn't require... it's great if state officials in New Jersey or city officials in St. Louis can decide to do this work, but all of us can decide to make a commitment to try to create more inclusive schools and communities.

Milly Arbaje-Thomas: And I mean, what I love about this is just how grassroots it is. This is something that parents are deciding, districts are deciding, so while the world tries to get everything together around racism in this country, we have a little bit of a solution happening right now.

Justin Reich: It's wonderful. Well Milly Arbaje Thomas, thank you so much for coming to talk with us about the METCO program.

Milly Arbaje-Thomas: Thank you. It's a pleasure.

Justin Reich: That was Milly Arbaje Thomas, CEO of the METCO program here in Boston. You've been listening to Teach Lab from the Teaching Systems Lab at MIT. I'm Justin Reich. You can find more resources from Milly Arbaje Thomas and the METCO program at our website, teachlabpodcast.com, that's teachlabpodcast.com. When you're there, you'll find lots of stuff including links to our upcoming free online course on NX called Becoming a More Equitable Educator. We hope you can join us there.

Justin Reich: You can also check out our YouTube channel, Teaching Systems Lab where you'll find the full video interview from this episode and even more video content from our online courses. All the work of the Teaching Systems Lab is licensed under Creative Commons License and we encourage you to use it and share. In our next episode we'll talk with Jeffrey Canada. He's the founder of the Harlem Children's Zone, which the New York Times called one of the most ambitious social policy experiments of our time. From the day that they're born, kids in the Harlem Children's Zone are wrapped in the social services and healthcare services, and they're sent to schools meant to give them all the advantages that are typical of a middle class upbringing. We'll hear how it's working next time on Teach Lab. This episode was produced by Amy Corrigan and Garrett Beasley. It was edited by Kate Ellis. It was recorded and mixed by Garrett Beasley, and it was filmed by Dienes McAdoo. Thanks for listening.