Boston’s only vocational school needs to improve quickly or be shut down, replaced by an independent regional vocational school, according to an internal School Department memo obtained by the Globe.
The recommendation, one of 27 made by an intervention team, highlights the daunting task the School Department faces in turning around Madison Park Technical Vocational High School in Roxbury, long plagued with poor MCAS scores and low graduation rates despite repeated attempts to fix the problems.
The memo calls for the shutdown to happen in three years, unless the school dramatically improves. Other recommendations focus on steps the School Department should take to try to prevent its closure, such as removing all administrators and admitting only students who are focused on vocational education.
The memo also criticized a high-profile effort by the Patrick administration to help overhaul the school through a dual-enrollment program with Roxbury Community College, calling it a “huge distraction.”
“There are concerns about pairing a failing high school with a failing community college and whether the outcomes are positive for students,” the memo stated, urging a review of the program.
School officials have been tight-lipped about the recommendations for weeks, keeping the June 8 memo secret from the Madison Park staff. The School Department released a copy to the Globe only after conducting a legal review, and then some portions about the removal of administrators and safety issues were redacted.
Interim Superintendent John McDonough said last week he is still reviewing the recommendations and is acting on some of them.
He is rejecting a recommendation to remove the headmaster, who has been on the job for only a year, believing a change at the top would create unnecessary instability and could potentially derail the overhaul. But he agrees with the need to remove seven other top administrators, he said.
McDonough also said that in general he supports the Patrick administration initiative, known as RoxMAPP , and that he found the proposal to replace Madison Park with an independent school thought-provoking.
“I do welcome the fact that the recommendation challenges us to think more broadly about options that might work best for students,” he said.
The stakes are high for Boston to get Madison Park humming. A well-run vocational school can prepare thousands of graduates for vocational or technically skilled jobs, helping to lift many of them out of poverty. Just last month, President Obama delivered the commencement speech at Worcester Technical High School, calling it a national model.
But Madison Park’s chronically deficient MCAS scores and low graduation rates have attracted much scrutiny from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which has the power to formally designate it an “underperforming school,” one step away from receivership.
Two-and-a-half years ago — at the urging of then-Mayor Thomas M. Menino and in effort to avoid state-mandated interventions — the School Department launched what was supposed to be an aggressive overhaul of Madison Park, investing more than $1 million.
But the effort foundered as a series of temporary headmasters ran the school, and in March the School Department and Mayor Martin J. Walsh announced the creation of the intervention team. The team consists of three union representatives, three administrators, and the superintendent-director of the Shawsheen Valley Technical School District in Billerica. None of the intervention team members has direct ties to Madison Park.
‘The staff wants to do the best they can. This is their school and their life, and they want to make this school work.’Richard Stutman, teachers union president
Although school officials have refused to release the recommendations to the Madison Park staff, pieces of it leaked out early last month, such as the possibility of closing the school and replacing all the administrators, raising concerns among staff members.
Tension rose further after McDonough unexpectedly showed up for a teacher-training session on June 11 and announced that the headmaster, Diane Ross Gary, would be staying, several teachers said. He made no reference to the recommendation that she should go, causing some staffers to question the validity of the recommendations circulating via the grapevine.
The Faculty Senate later voted to ask the School Department to release the recommendations.
Some teachers criticize Gary, who never worked as a principal before but has extensive experience in vocational education, for what they say is poor communication, lax discipline procedures for students, and spending too much time in her office. The teachers asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to speak.
“At every corner, she makes bad decisions,” said one teacher.
But another teacher expressed some sympathy, saying “she inherited a messed-up school.”
“It’s an overwhelming task to straighten out,” that teacher said. “The pope could not straighten it out in one year.”
Gary declined comment through a School Department spokesman.
The teachers interviewed say that McDonough and Walsh bowed to political pressure from some elected officials and from the Friends of Madison Park, who wanted to keep Gary in charge, believing she has the right expertise but needs more time. The Friends of Madison Park publicly voiced their support for Gary this spring in an article in the Bay State Banner, while members of the group and some elected officials met with Walsh.
Both Walsh and McDonough said politics played no role in the decision to keep Gary, saying simply that she deserves more than a year to prove herself and also needs the opportunity to appoint her own administrative team instead of inheriting one.
“When Dr. Gary was put into the job, a lot of supports weren’t there for her,” said Walsh, who acknowledged meeting with Friends of Madison Park and elected officials to talk about Gary and other issues at the school.
Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union, said the recommendations by the intervention team raise a lot of serious concerns about Madison Park, but he said giving the school only three years to prove itself is too short of a timeline. He said the staff is dedicated to getting the job done.
“The staff wants to do the best they can,” Stutman said. “This is their school and their life, and they want to make this school work.”
The recommendation about replacing Madison Park with a regional vocational school comes at the end of the seven-page memo and offers no details, except to say that a new school should be established on a different site. It also notes that staff morale needs to improve.
The creation of a regional vocational school independent of the city’s school system would put Boston in line with how most vocational schools work in the state, functioning as separate entities from the local school systems.
Such a move would require approvals from the state education department and any community that would want to join in creating the regional vocational school.
Jim Stergios, executive director of the Pioneer Institute, a public policy research organization in Boston that has studied the state’s vocational schools, said separating vocational education from the Boston school system might be the best move.
“I’m really encouraged to hear they are thinking this way,” Stergios said. “The regional vocational schools [in Massachusetts] perform quite handsomely.”
But other experts say Boston should not have to take such a step, noting that the Worcester school system oversees its vocational school.
Walsh said he prefers keeping vocational education within the jurisdiction of the School Department and voiced optimism about Madison Park.
“I think the changes we will make at Madison Park will be transformative,” Walsh said. “We have to get the school on the right track. We owe it to the kids.”