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The Boston Globe

Metro

Yvonne Abraham

A lost year at Madison Park high school

The huge hole in Dana Murray’s ceiling has no business being there.

It yawns over the desks at the front of her English language arts classroom at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School, exposing ductwork and gray sprayed concrete and frayed priorities. When it rains, water pours into the room. Students move their desks and place trash barrels to collect the torrent.

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Then they try to focus on “Othello” or “Of Mice and Men.” But not both. The school’s book room was flooded two years ago, ruining piles of literature. Murray was told there was no money to replace the books. So few copies of those two great works remain that she must ration them.

It has been like this for two years. The downpour through the ceiling. The Shakespeare drought. Two. Years.

These are bush-league problems, the kinds of absurdities that plagued urban schools back when disco did, long before the mayor staked his reputation on education, long before the entire city turned its attention to the achievement gap. But here we are, in 2013, and Madison Park is in the midst of its own ’80s revival.

The school has been much-discussed this week. Parents and alumni say it is in a downward spiral, despite grand promises by Mayor Tom Menino, in his 2012 state of the city address, to overhaul the long-
struggling school. On Tuesday, Menino and Governor Deval Patrick announced an ambitious plan to make the school a partner with nearby Roxbury Community College, allowing students to earn a high school diploma and an associate’s degree and be ready for the workforce or more college in five years.

Students at Madison Park could use a break (though pairing a failing school with a failing community college seems an iffy proposition). Most entering students are dropout risks; less than one-third of them score proficient or advanced on MCAS exams; most GPAs hover at or below 2.0; more than 40 percent of freshmen fail to graduate in four years; the average student is absent more than one month a year.

This was supposed to be the year it all turned around, starting with Menino’s commitment. But 2012-13 has been pretty awful in the hulking building on Malcolm X Boulevard.

The trouble began last summer, when the School Department failed to find a headmaster to lead Madison Park out of its misery. Then the acting headmaster, Queon Johnson, was placed on leave while federal investigators looked into his possible involvement in a credit fraud ring. What a superb example for the kids!

And what a lost opportunity. A great headmaster would have had Murray’s ceiling fixed before now. A great headmaster would have solved the textbook problem long ago, demanding that the bureaucrats replace the damaged Steinbecks. A great headmaster would have removed the obstacles good teachers face and called to account those who fail their students.

Leaky ceilings are but symptoms of a bigger problem. Patching plaster isn’t the whole solution: minutes away from Madison Park, the gleaming, state-of-the-art Orchard Gardens school was failing until principal Andrew Bott showed up. Leadership makes all the difference.

Having failed to find the school that indispensable catalyst, outgoing Superintendent Carol R. Johnson has made long-overdue promises, pledging to pour $1.4 million into the school for new books, repairs, and extra staff this fall. And, they say, a new headmaster is finally in the offing.

It would nice to believe they’ll get it right this time. I’ll believe it when that hole in Dana Murray’s classroom is filled and when the next hole lasts days, or hours. When the answer to the dream of enough books for all isn’t King Lear’s: Never, never, never, never, never.

All this fumbling has wasted precious time. It’s a familiar, and dispiriting, rhythm: Adults flounder. Kids wait. Some students have thrived at Madison Park in spite of it all; others have drifted.

For them, this has been another lost year, and they will never get it back.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com.

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