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Overhaul urged at Madison Park high school

Groups say school in ‘downward spiral’

Madison Park has been plagued for years by lackluster state standardized test scores.

John Blanding/Globe Staff 2012 files

Madison Park has been plagued for years by lackluster state standardized test scores.

Parents, alumni, and community activists are galvanizing to stop what they call the “downward spiral” of Madison Park Technical Vocational High School, urging School Department officials to move quickly in addressing a wide range of issues, including a lack of textbooks, no permanent headmaster, and an extended day that leaves many students losing class time.

The push by the school’s alumni association and the Friends of Madison Park Technical Vocational High School comes at the end of a school year that was supposed to mark the start of Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s sweeping overhaul of the long-failing school.

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But the plan has experienced repeated setbacks and the year was punctuated by unstable leadership, infighting among administrators and teachers, and high student absenteeism.

“I visited the school 35 years after graduating,” said Sophia Gurley, a member of Madison Park’s Class of 1978 and a member of the Friends of Madison Park. “I was in total shock about how it was in disarray. It’s not the top-notch place that parents would want to send their children to. Morale is low among teachers. Students are out of control. It’s not the place for learning right now.”

Superintendent Carol R. Johnson, who has met with the concerned groups at least twice over the past three months, said overhauling Madison Park remains a high priority for the School Department.

“I think, while things have not moved as rapidly as we would have liked this year because of the delay in leadership, in getting that in place, the concerns people have raised are valid and we are working to address them,” she said.

Madison Park, which educates about 1,100 students, is Boston’s only vocational-technical high school. It has been plagued for years by low graduation rates and lackluster state standardized test scores, and is outperformed by many vocational schools across the state, including those in Springfield and Worcester, which have invested millions of dollars in new facilities.

Menino has said he wants to transform Madison Park into a “top-notch center for career readiness and workforce development,” a place that would cater to teenagers during the day and offer programs to adults in the evening.

The vision — sketched out in the mayor’s 2012 state of the city speech — initially instilled optimism about the school’s future, but the effort unraveled.

In the days leading up to the start of school last fall, the School Department was frantically hiring key administrators and had to appoint an acting headmaster after a search for a permanent leader failed to find a suitable candidate.

Then in February, Johnson placed that acting headmaster, Queon Jackson, on administrative leave, while federal investigators probed his alleged role in a multistate credit fraud ring, which remains ongoing.

Many students, who held Jackson in high regard, staged a walkout in protest and said they lost confidence in the school.

“It was chaos right from the beginning,” said one mother, who declined to have her name published due to privacy concerns. “It was unsettling to students to see what was going on.”

And beyond the rocky leadership, numerous problems exist, say the two groups, who have presented a lengthy list of concerns to Johnson, including rodents running through hallways, ceilings leaking during rainstorms, outdated math and science textbooks, no textbooks in many electives, and administrators who are ill-suited for their jobs.

In response, Johnson sent the groups a letter on May 31, pledging $350,000 toward purchasing new textbooks, while promising to hire a new headmaster by July 1. She also vowed to fix the electrical problems before the fall and develop a plan for a major school renovation.

But the Friends of Madison Park was unsatisfied by the response and wants to see real change instead of just promises. It responded by saying the “problems of neglect, academic and personal mistreatment at Madison Park have become a full-blown crisis.”

The group said in the letter that, “Students, staff, alumni, and community members have tried to get the attention of educational leadership of the Boston public schools, political leaders, clergy, and others but have won only idle promises while the downward spiral continues to accelerate.”

Some city councilors have joined the move to put Madison Park back on track, as well.

“We have to move this conversation to the highest levels of government,” said City Councilor Tito Jackson. “It is important that our young people achieve and be set up for success and not failure.”

City councilors John R. Connolly and Frank Baker have repeatedly raised concerns about Madison Park, as well.

Approximately 100 teachers and staff members also sent a signed letter to Johnson on March 11 detailing several problems with adding an hour to the school day.

The 3 p.m. dismissal means some students involved with sports or internships have to leave early, missing class time. They also said the unsteady leadership has caused initiatives undertaken through teacher training to frequently change.

“Over the past year and a half, the faculty of Madison Park has experienced numerous disruptions and disappointments,” the letter said. “Through it all we have always done and will continue to do what is best for students. We express these concerns with the sincere hope to start a conversation about how best to improve this school going forward.”

They questioned whether the money spent on the extended day, which they said approaches $600,000 per year, could be better spent on other areas, such as expanding arts offerings or bolstering instruction for students not fluent in English.

Roger Bourgeois, network superintendent for technical and vocational education, said the schedule will remain in place next year because officials need more time to work with teachers on developing a new schedule.

Students and parents have been caught in the middle.

Lynnette Medina, 17, of Dorchester, who graduated from Madison Park on Wednesday, persevered through the year without textbooks in anatomy and physiology and in calculus. Teachers, she said, would hand out photocopied pages of textbooks.

“It was a little difficult this year, but we pulled through it,” said Medina, who hopes the school will be in better shape in future years. “This school has a lot of potential.”

As one teacher, who asked to remain anonymous, put it: “It’s been a train wreck. . . . You mess up a year of a kid’s education, you can’t get it back. It’s devastating that happened to them.”

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