WORCESTER — Students used to loiter on the grounds of Worcester Technical High School, taking cigarette breaks and waiting for their lunch to arrive. Deliverymen carrying pizzas and chicken wings would show up only to be shooed away by school staff.
“We had to keep confiscating pizza, getting on the PA saying, ‘No, you don’t,’” Sheila Harrity, Worcester Tech’s principal, recently told a contingent from Boston trying to breathe new life into their city’s struggling vocational high school and looking to schools like this as a road map to success.
In many ways, Boston’s Madison Park Technical Vocational High School is where Worcester Tech was a decade ago. Back then at Worcester Tech, books were scarce and advanced placement classes essentially nonexistent.
As American industry clamors for skilled technical workers — Massachusetts alone needs tens of thousands — vocational-technical education has experienced a resurgence. From the White House to Beacon Hill to Boston City Hall, vocational education has emerged as one key to ensuring that students who aren’t necessarily bound for college don’t get left behind in the quickly shifting economy.
Gone are the days when vocational education students were splintered from their college-going peers, days when the prevailing belief was that a vocational education should focus on the vocation and not necessarily education. Today, educators say these schools give students the academic foundation to continue their education beyond high school in addition to specialized skills.
But Worcester Tech did neither of those in 2006 when Harrity arrived, and it was nearly five years before the tides began to change at the school, which is now regarded by federal officials as among the country’s best schools, with about 98 percent of its 1,400 students graduating in four years, and about 60 percent going on to college.
Now, it is Madison Park that is trying to stage a turnaround. Its fortunes and those of another embattled school, Roxbury Community College, were linked last year in a novel initiative launched by the governor and Boston’s previous mayor.
As the Boston group toured Worcester Tech’s state-of-the-art campus and passed engaged students, it wondered: How can Madison Park replicate the success in Worcester, where the community at large, including businesses, higher education, and nonprofits, made the school a shared cause?
“You’re sitting on a gem that just needs to be polished, and I can say that because if we can do it, anybody can do it,” Harrity said.
She should know: Harrity arrived to a brand new, $90 million building nearly a decade ago, but the physical transformation did not immediately bring about a turn in the school’s fortunes.
Promise not yet realized
Madison Park has long needed a reboot.
More than two years have passed since former mayor Thomas M. Menino vowed to transform the school into a “top-notch center for career readiness and workforce development.”
But the promise has yet to come fully to fruition. The latest state figures show that at Boston’s lone vocational school, 3 out of 10 students do not graduate in four years, only one-third of sophomores can do math at grade level, and barely half of sophomores can read at that level.
And just last week, the Boston school district announced a series of interventions aimed at improving performance that could mean the involuntary reassigning of staff, including administrators.
Last summer, Menino and Governor Deval Patrick announced a partnership between Madison Park and RCC — essentially between the city and the state — that allows students to earn a high school diploma and an associate’s degree at the same time.
The high-profile partnership, called the Roxbury Massachusetts Academic Polytech Pathway — RoxMAPP for short — is supposed to force both schools “to right their ships,” said state education Secretary Matthew Malone.
It is expected to take five years for the RoxMAPP initiative to be fully implemented, but Malone is quick to caution that Madison Park cannot wait five years.
“You’ve got two institutions across from each other that have been failing kids for too long,” Malone said. “We can defy demographics. A community has come together, smart people both outside and inside, to force the creation of something special.”
The program is overseen by a 22-member volunteer advisory board that includes health care, construction, and transportation specialists, elected officials, Boston School Committee members, and RCC trustees.
The hope is that every 11th- and 12th-grader at Madison Park will also be enrolled at RCC, earning college credit and receiving technical training in one of up to about 24 career pathways.
The first group of 17 students started in the fall with much fanfare. They sat in a college classroom crowded with dignitaries.
“Remember today because the reason that all these folks are here . . . is because we are very vested in your success,” Patrick told the nervous students, all juniors studying nursing. “We need you.”
Menino called the students the “next generation of leaders.”
That was Sept. 30, one month and six days before Martin J. Walsh was elected the city’s new mayor. And soon, Massachusetts will have a new governor.
Despite RoxMAPP being born at a time of transition, Malone said he believes it will remain a priority for Walsh and for Patrick’s successor.
Walsh showed his support by giving RoxMAPP a shout-out during his inaugural speech, but the Commonwealth’s next governor must decide where the initiative will fit within a new administration.
Vocational education has been a rallying cry for the state’s 10 gubernatorial candidates, many of whom said they see it as part of a statewide economic development plan.
By 2020, there will be a need for tens of thousands of well-paying jobs that require at most an associate’s degree. Pharmacy technicians. Veterinary technicians. Registered nurses. Medical secretaries. Insurance agents. Carpenters. Cabinetmakers. Bank tellers. Loan officers. And computer-controlled machine operators.
RoxMAPP’s first semester was tough, for students and teachers alike.
Every morning was spent at the high school’s nursing lab, with mannequins tucked into hospital beds. One, affectionately called Ms. Jones by female students, often swaddles a fake baby in her arms.
In the afternoons, students walked across the street to take a prep course, learning college-level research and writing methods. Half of the class tested into English composition; the other half needed an intense boot camp to strengthen grammar, syntax, and vocabulary.
It was a surprise to administrators that more students didn’t test into English composition, one of several unforeseen hiccups. Then there were the logistical issues. Things like aligning high school schedules with college classes and clinical lessons. And most students did not have computers at home, so they spent evenings at the library until it closed at 10 p.m., commendable but not necessarily safe as these were 16-year-olds whose school days begin before 8 a.m.
Opal Hines-Fisher, the allied health coordinator at Madison Park who makes the 10- to 15-minute walk across the street to RCC with students every day, said “we assumed, just assumed” they had access to computers. A philanthropist donated laptop computers to each student, so the computer-access issue has been resolved.
‘Just as bright’
On a recent Wednesday, students left Madison Park with snow flurries swirling and crossed Malcolm X Boulevard. Tamara Fils-Aime said she and her classmates feel an intense pressure to succeed.
“The administration thinks highly of us,” Fils-Aime said. “Sometimes, I don’t think we live up to that.”
Still, there are those moments when she said the adults in their college-level English course “turn to us and ask for our help. We are just as bright.”
The 75-minute class begins promptly at 1:30 p.m.
“Are we going to need our book?” Chante Parara asks the professor, Marlena Karami.
They do, but Parara doesn’t have hers.
So she shares Fils-Aime’s book as Karami begins a lecture on persuasive writing. She talks about the three parts of a persuasive speech, making examples of Joe Camel cigarette ads, bilingual education, and teenagers tried as adults for homicide.
They break into groups for a quick writing assignment: Does the 18-year-old New Jersey teen suing her parents for financial support deserve the money?
“Do we believe that she deserves the money?” Beza Tadess asks her three group members.
“No,” they respond in unison.
“Why do we think she doesn’t deserve the money?” Tadess follows up.
“It’s kind of like when you live in an apartment with someone else. If your name is not on the lease, then technically you don’t live there,” Johanson Vernet responds.
A simple goal
Diane Ross Gary is still getting to know all 1 million square feet of Madison Park, a school built in 1977. Gary, who is from Connecticut, had been retired for about a year and half when she was persuaded to take the helm of the 37-year-old school.
Her goal, she says, is simple: make Madison Park the school it should be. “Being the only technical high school in Boston, they should be breaking down our doors,” Gary said.
She said she wants all juniors and seniors to be able to take English and math classes at RCC, and a committee made up of staff from both schools is being formed to make sure freshmen and sophomores are ready to handle college courses by the time they enter 11th grade.
Gary wants more partnerships with area colleges and businesses.
Already, she said, Wentworth Institute of Technology has agreed to redo Madison Park’s welding area, which the college would use at night and the high school would use during the day.
“Our welding shop has been down for I don’t know how many years,” Gary said.
But there are challenges ahead, too, she said, walking around the expansive building, which looks as if it was designed with City Hall as the inspiration. The building, she said, “is old but we make do.” There are boxes stacked behind gated nooks and outdated equipment in the culinary arts kitchen.
Restoring trust among students and staff is a must, she said. There was a period of instability after the school’s longtime headmaster retired in May 2012. “It’s a matter of getting people on the same page and understanding that Madison Park has had some problems and some issues and building the trust with the people here,” she said.
As she walks the halls, there’s still a bit of back talk from students. She asks them to pull up their pants, put away their cellphones, and pull the headphones from their ears.
“Put that away, please,” she says to a young man running an Afro pick through his hair.
“I can’t wear my hat, I’m going to pick my hair,” he says, continuing down the stairs while coiffing his hair. He does, however, lower the comb once he passes her.
A future look
In January, the tour of the Worcester school by the contingent from Boston takes them to the Tufts at Tech Community Veterinary Clinic, which used to be a storage area until students in the construction program transformed it.
“We had stuffed animals, but we wanted real animals because everything should be authentic,” Harrity said before introducing Dr. Greg Wolfus, who oversees the two-year-old clinic run by students in their final year at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and those in Worcester Tech’s veterinary assistant program.
The clinic provides low-cost care for about 250 pets each month, Dr. Wolfus said, explaining that a calm, flaxen-colored dog swallowed a needle and thread strung with popcorn that must be removed. The $2,000 surgery will cost about $200 here.
For the folks from Boston, this is a looking glass into the future.