Students in CCHS METCO Program Share Experiences and Initiatives Amid National Discussions on Race

Concord-Carlisle Senior Joseph Vann and his friends were sitting in the Concord-Carlisle High School lunchroom to chat after school one day when a White staff member strolled over and said, “Make sure you guys continue to be quiet; I don’t want to have to deal with your kind right now.”

The staff member walked away, leaving Vann and his friends, all of whom are Black, silent in shock and disbelief. It was the first time Vann experienced such a microaggression in high school, and it wasn’t until he was singled out by the same staff member a second time that he reported both incidents to administration. 

Throughout Vann’s experiences at Concord-Carlisle, he found a lack of peers and staff who truly empathized with his experiences with racism at school. Vann said that he kept receiving similar responses when he tried to reach out to staff, only to see the administration respond with inaction.

What Vann experienced was just one of the multiple accounts of racism that occur frequently at school. CCHS is a wealthy school, with only 5.9% of its student body being economically disadvantaged compared to the state average of 32.8%. Additionally, Concord’s median household income in 2018 was $141,293, as opposed to the state average of $77,378. CCHS has a student enrollment that is 78% White and 4.5% Black, compared to the state average of 57.9% White and 9.2% Black. Vann and much of the Black student population are participants of the Metropolitan Council for Education Opportunity, commonly referred to as METCO, a voluntary busing program that integrates students of color from Boston and Springfield to public schools located in their respective suburbs.

At CCHS, METCO students feel that the administration is unable to make any systemic reform because the school has created a culture that discourages victims from reporting racist incidents, which stems from a lack of an outlet where students can safely express their concerns, as well as a lack of trust between METCO students and the majority-white school population. As a result, students of color say they feel they are underrepresented at school, forcing the burden on them to create change through their own clubs and initiatives. 

“Almost every year I’ve been in METCO that I’ve been working with METCO students, I’ve had to deal with racial incidents,” Andrew Nyamekye, METCO director for the Concord-Carlisle School District said during an interview with him. “And I’ve been doing this for 11 years.”

Nationally, conversations surrounding race in education have increased among non-Black Americans as a result of the murder of George Floyd and the recent public outcry against institutionalized racism, according to Bryant Best, a Ph.D. student writing his thesis on justice in education at Vanderbilt University. Prior to these recent events, Best’s research, which focuses on the school-to-prison pipeline as well as practices in education that negatively impact marginalized students, has shown that race is a topic that remains undiscussed in schools. 

“Sometimes, teachers don’t know what to say; sometimes they don’t have the tools; they don’t have the resources; they don’t have the experience; and that’s not to fault them,” Best said in a conversation with me. “But at the end of the day there are experiences where students are hurting, and issues of race come into play that need to be addressed in some sort of comprehensive way.”

The administration at CCHS has recently begun to facilitate open dialogue on racism at school through providing resources, webinars, and workshops on the issue. While CCHS administration has begun to promote these conversations during late spring and summer, racism is still a prevalent issue that students of color experience at school. Within CCHS, several Black students said they have faced microaggressions and discrimination, some of which are rarely reported to administration, from both peers and staff.

Vann said in my interview with him that he remembers an event when he won an academic award, and a fellow student said that he had won the award solely due to the color of his skin and the school’s need for “diverse winners.”

Senior Kalise Wynter, another participant of METCO, said during our interview that she knew of a teacher who thought that “all” of the Boston students lived in projects, perpetuating a stereotype that METCO students are poor.

“It’s just crazy how people can stereotype off of not even knowing you and not even teaching you,” Wynter said. 

When discriminatory incidents occur, METCO students at CCHS seldom reach out to the school’s administration or staff with their concerns. To the students, much of the hesitation derives from the fact that a majority of the staff is white, with only 3 Black staff members out of 178 at CCHS. This leaves the majority of faculty unable to fully empathize with their concerns. 

“A lot of times we think, if I say something, is there really going to be a change, are they going to do anything, is it worth it?” senior Makayla Francois said over a Zoom call.

Even when racist incidents are reported, CCHS struggles to tackle these issues head-on. When these issues occur, Vann said, the school leads mandatory hour-long presentations about METCO and its significance. Instead of facilitating meaningful conversations about racism, the presentations are viewed by non-METCO students “as a break” from classes rather than an integral component to the CCHS curriculum, he said.

“It’s just been passing conversations, like a quick thing about inclusion,” Wynter said. “But it’s never been an actual topic about what people of color face in a predominantly white school.” 

METCO students who felt uncomfortable voicing their concerns to teachers and administration often reach out to METCO director Andrew Nyamekye. Nyamekye not only manages METCO at CCHS as an administrator, but he also plays a father- and sibling-like role to METCO students. As one of the few staff members of color at CCHS, Nyamekye speaks to the administration on behalf of METCO students when he is approached with their concerns. 

When such incidents are reported, an investigation goes underway that involves the perpetrator, victim, and bystanders, as well as parents of the students involved and several members of administration based on the severity of the situation. The administration involved in the investigation then formulates a plan to remedy the incident, whether through disciplinary action or facilitating conversations between the victim and the perpetrator.

In May, for instance, a racist Snapchat post by a CCHS student began an investigation that involved the Concord Police Department and Superintendent Dr. Laurie Hunter. In response to the incident, Hunter released a statement that said CCHS plans to facilitate student and staff discussions to address racism at the school as well as provide resources and webinars regarding these issues. 

METCO was founded in 1966 as an initiative to desegregate schools in Massachusetts by enrolling students of color from Boston into several predominantly white schools in the suburbs. METCO provides students of color educational opportunities in suburban schools while also increasing diversity in the majority-white communities. 

When the program was founded amid the Civil Rights Movement, 20 Black students from Boston were bused to CCHS within the first year. Currently, 3,100 families from metropolitan Boston and Springfield have students enrolled in 31 suburban school districts in Massachusetts. Among these METCO students are 64 students enrolled at CCHS this upcoming academic year.

Despite the integration METCO has implemented over the past 54 years, several METCO students at CCHS said they experience a lack of inclusivity at the school. These students said they feel they are only welcomed in spaces such as the cafeteria, where METCO students tend to sit with each other and feel directed toward certain sports. 

CCHS and METCO alumnus ’09 James Dottin was among those who found a lack of integration outside of school sports. In my discussion with him, he said he thinks that METCO students were peer pressured to not participate in certain clubs and other non-physical activities.

“If they weren’t involved in sports, they weren’t involved in anything,” Dottin said. “It leaves students, like METCO students, not interacting with other Concord students.”

METCO students who have attended Concord Public Schools since elementary school described an increase in segregation when they transitioned into middle and high school. One reason for the increasing racial divide among student bodies is the absence of programs that strengthen relationships between the communities in Boston and in Concord; the Family Friends Program connects families of METCO and families of Concord, but students and their families can only be enrolled in it until the students are in ninth grade. By the time students enter high school, which Dottin said is when social cliques tend to form, METCO students find themselves limited to interacting with each other in the lunchroom. 

“They [the school administrators] were like, ‘Let’s take some Black students and dump them into the ocean and see what happens,’ like it was an experiment,” Dottin said. “But we knew what was going to happen; they’re [the METCO students are] going to be like fish — schools of fish stay together.”

Following the protests in June supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, numerous Instagram accounts have been created as a platform for Black students at majority-white schools to share their personal stories of racism. As a way to follow the current trend, an account was recently made by CCHS students. What at first was an account that told personal stories of racism at CCHS soon began to post irrelevant memes to its followers. One such post included a picture of Gandhi, with a caption that said the photo was “one of the last photos taken of MLK.” 

“This is really disheartening because we are trying to do all this stuff; we’re trying to create this environment at CC where we can feel more comfortable,” Vann said. “It just feels like the students at CC don’t care, or they’re not taking it seriously.” 

Though the school has yet to raise meaningful conversations and open spaces to discuss race-related issues, students from both Concord and METCO communities have already planned several initiatives to address racism at CCHS. 

One such initiative is the Black Student Union, led by its founder Wynter. BSU will be a new club this upcoming academic year at CCHS that promotes positive images of Black students through highlighting events of activism and in history that the school curriculum doesn’t cover. 

Vann is part of the Intersections Club, a group of diverse student leaders focused on highlighting the multiple cultures and backgrounds present throughout CCHS. The club is currently promoting dialogue about race through discussions and radio shows on the school radio station WIQH, and have hosted student-led roundtable discussions and panels this summer on Zoom. 

Francois is currently organizing the Hands Up Let’s Talk Initiative. As the founder, Francois said she hopes to provide a space where students of color can safely share their experiences of discrimination and discuss topics regarding current events and African-American history. She said after she graduates from CCHS, she hopes to continue seeing these conversations taking place within the school. 

“When I leave and come back a few years later,” Francois said, “I will see that our school has shown that they grew as a community and there is more inclusiveness, and kids are happy there at CC.”

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