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Boston innovation high school off to rough start

Madison Park Technical High has mayoral support.

John Blanding /Globe staff

Madison Park Technical High has mayoral support.

It was a centerpiece of Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s state of the city speech this year: Transform the long faltering Madison Park Vocational Technical High School into a “top-notch center for career readiness and workforce development.”

The mayor talked about how a revamped Madison Park would cater to teenagers during the day and adults at night, providing them the job skills necessary to climb out of poverty. He challenged the city’s businesses to pitch in with advice, jobs, and money.

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But when Madison Park re-opened as an innovation school Sept. 6, the first hard-fought step of its turnaround effort, confusion, frustration, and disappointment had filled the halls.

There were barely any administrators in place to run the school. The School Department, in the days leading up to the opening, assigned an interim headmaster, after a search for a new headmaster failed this summer, and it was still hiring nine administrators. Some of those leaders started last week. Others started this week, while another will start later.

The last-minute hires at the Roxbury school have some staff wondering whether the grand plans for an overhaul may be nothing but a broken promise.

“It’s falling apart,” said one teacher, who like others interviewed for this story asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to speak to the press. “Morale is nonexistent here.”

Matthew Wilder, a School Department spokesman, said Superintendent Carol R. Johnson remains committed to overhauling Madison Park. While it would have been ideal to have a new administrative team start by July 1, Wilder said, the ­superintendent wanted to make sure she hired the right people, especially the headmaster.

Boston is following Worcester and Springfield in seeking to overhaul vocational education, providing students a critical path to technically skilled jobs who may benefit from a high school experience that mixes classes with internships.

In 2006, Worcester opened a state-of-the-art facility that has yielded the kinds of academic success akin to independently run vocational schools in the suburbs. Springfield is hoping to repeat that success at its $114 million vocational school that opened last month.

Boston is not planning on building a new facility, although Madison Park staff are pushing for a renovation. Some areas of the building are in such poor shape that they are only used for storage, according to the school’s overhaul plan.

So far, the School Department has added an hour to Madison Park’s day for this fall, is devising a schedule for upper­classmen that alternates a week of academics with a week of workplace experience, and will adopt a curriculum that directly ties academic coursework with vocational classes.

When Menino unveiled his proposal for Madison Park in January, he warned a packed crowd at Faneuil Hall that “real change won’t come easily.”

The proposal consumed nearly a full page of the mayor’s five-page state of the city ­address and made clear the ­urgency for a turnaround. He cited statistics about students missing more than a month of school and said that only 11 students in the previous school year had secured a cooperative education job, the gold standard of vocational education.

Released simultaneously with the mayor’s proposal was a report that exposed a culture of low expectations at Madison Park. Less than a third of students scored proficient or ­advanced on state standardized tests in 2010. More than 40 percent of students fail to graduate in four years, and only a few dozen students took college-­level courses.

The School Department’s ­effort in executing the mayor’s directive has had its ups and downs. It secured a major victory May 14 when teachers approved converting Madison Park into an innovation school, a type of school that can waive provisions of teacher contracts, allowing for the lengthening of the school day.

But the department was taken by surprise when Chuck McAfee, the long-serving headmaster, announced his retirement in late May, Wilder said.

The department posted the position June 12, and 10 of 23 applicants were interviewed by a committee of staff from Madison Park and central office. On Aug. 10, Johnson interviewed a single finalist, and for a variety of reasons the candidate did not work out, Wilder said.

Efforts to hire nine school administrators ran even later. Jobs were not posted until early August. Those who held administrative positions at the school last year were invited to apply, but were not guaranteed a slot.

Some staff members said the School Department should have started looking for a headmaster much sooner and said that speculation began swirling shortly after the mayor’s announce­ment that McAfee would not be staying.

“You don’t start interviewing for the headmaster’s position in July,” said one teacher. “It’s like hiring a coach for the Patriots a week before the season starts.”

But others involved with the school’s turnaround effort said Johnson made a good decision in not rushing to fill the slot.

“I’m just glad the superintendent didn’t hire the wrong person,” said Neil Sullivan, ­executive director of the Boston Private Industry Council, a public-­private partnership between the city, its school system and businesses. “That would have cost us years, not months.”

Dot Joyce, a spokeswoman for the mayor, said the overhaul “needs to be done right the first time.”

City Councilor John Connolly, who chairs the council’s education panel, said he was surprised the overhaul of Madison Park got off slowly. He said he has heard from a number of teachers on the issue.

“It is deeply concerning to me that Madison Park, our vocational education center, is ­basically going to have another year without innovation,” he said. “It seems to me someone was asleep at the switch.”

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com.
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