Photo: The protest outside Belmont High School on Wednesday, June 17.
For 12 years, since first coming to the Wellington Elementary School as a first grader, Rashunda Webb has been a young woman on the move.
As a METCO student, she traveled from Dorchester to Belmont initially on a bus for her early years before switching to public transportation. While she attended Belmont High School, it took Webb a good 90 minutes on MBTA buses and subways to get to school and then back home.
Yet she said without benefits of graduating from one of the best open enrollment high schools in the country, “I don’t think I would have had the chance of attending the college I’ve been hoping to,” said Webb, who is matriculating at New York University this fall as a nursing student.
And while she succeeded in using the opportunity METCO gave her, Webb wants to see others from her neighborhood take the same route she did.
“There are many, many kids who want to come here,” Webb told the Belmontonian.
But the program Webb took advantage of is battling to maintain it funding level to where it can remain a viable option for other students from Boston.
“The budget cuts are closing the doors to the same opportunity I was privileged enough to experience,” said Webb at an informational protest rally at the entry to Belmont High School at Underwood Street and Concord Avenue on Wednesday, June 17.
“That is why we are here today, that METCO will no longer open those doors of opportunity if we don’t speak up,” said Webb.
Holding bed sheets with “Protect METCO” and “The fight for equality is your responsibility,” written on them, a small but dedicated group of recent graduates and current students – each taking time away from finals preparation – sought to raise the issue that they believe has not received the attention or coverage it deserves.
While many cars and students gave curious looks at the group, other beeped their horns and gave a supportive wave.
“We’re looking to gain support in Belmont with this protest,” said Joe Fitzgerald, a 2014 Belmont High grad who coordinated the protest. Currently, 119 students from Boston attend Belmont schools in the first through twelfth grades.
METCO – which stands for Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunities – is a voluntary integration program founded in 1966, provides a suburban public school education for African-American, Hispanic, and Asian students from Boston.
The program is currently in a tug of war between Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker’s budget which attempts to close a $768 million deficit. His budget cuts the METCO line item by $1.2 million to $17.9 million in fiscal 2016 while over in the House of Representatives, they propose to restore METCO funding to $20.14 million, a million dollars greater than last fiscal year’s amount.
If the cuts are approved and passed, Belmont could see a resulting reduction in METCO of $54,000, a sizable hit for the program, Fitzgerald said. It could result in a drop in the over number of students attending Belmont schools and could result in siblings of current METCO students not provided an easier avenue to follow their brothers or sisters to the same schools.
“We want to gain the democratic voice we need to bring more people into the debate, so it’s not just a debate between two or three higher ups but of the community which wants this program continue at adequate levels,” said Fitzgerald.