Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Living in Boston, Learning in Needham: A Sophomore’s Story

I met with Tim, a high school student I mentor, the other day to check in and see how his first semester is going. Tim (not his real name) is a sophomore and a Boston resident who participates in the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity (METCO) Program. As one of only 33 Boston students of color at nearly all white Needham High School, Tim manages to get up early (5:00 a.m.) for the bus ride into suburban Needham, tackles assignments, rushes to football practice or a workout in the fitness center, and heads home to complete homework or rehearse for the church choir. Like any other teen, he struggles to balance his grades, football, friends, and responsibilities at home.

But Tim is also navigating his high school career within a venue far from his Boston neighborhood and the comfort of familiar friends and faces. It’s tough enough these days for teenagers to figure out how they fit in; it’s an additional challenge to live two lives, one in suburbia where many of your friends are white and the other in the city, where most of your friends are black.

Freshman year was an adjustment for Tim. His grades suffered a bit, but with the assistance of staff and the encouragement of his parents he muddled through and is in a much better place as a sophomore. He is more engaged and focused, and he talks more seriously about his schoolwork and its importance. He is a very social young man (part of the problem freshman year!), and he seems entirely comfortable in the halls of Needham High. He told me he plans to run as a student council rep in the spring, and I have no doubt he will be successful.
“I have a lot to offer,” he told me.

Tim’s participation in the METCO Program is a real advantage for him, one that not all Boston students of color can enjoy. His parents’ perseverance, the Commonwealth’s financial support, and the Needham community’s willingness to partner with METCO these past 42 years means that Tim, and about 140 other Boston students of color, can enjoy an exceptional educational experience with Needham resident students beginning in Kindergarten.

It’s not a one-way street, by the way. Needham’s students benefit from the METCO program as much as their Boston friends. While Tim and the other Boston students attending Needham Schools are receiving a great education, Needham’s students are experiencing and interacting with young people who look different than they do and who have different social and cultural circumstances. They are all learning about each other and gaining lifelong friends whom they will depend on long after they graduate from Needham High.

The Needham/METCO connection means that all of our students are teachers: White students and students of color share their stories, assist one another, appreciate their similarities and differences, and learn powerful lessons about the human family. These are meaningful and important lessons, especially as our students study, work, and live in an increasingly diverse and global society.

My hope is that Tim—and each of our METCO students—will continue to have a successful year, although I am certain there will be hurdles and obstacles. Clearly, his parents, teachers, pastor, and Boston and Needham friends will support and encourage him along the way. Indeed, he has so much to learn and to gain from his Needham Public Schools experience. And if we all listen carefully and pay close attention to his personal story, we, too, will be enriched by his presence in our classrooms and within our community.

To learn more about the Needham/METCO connection, check out our website:

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