Enrollment is sliding fast at the city of Boston’s only vocational high school, as the troubled Madison Park Technical Vocational High School prepares to welcome one of its smallest freshman classes in decades amid fears that it could eventually close or cut back sharply on its programs.
Fewer than 150 ninth-graders are expected to report to the Roxbury school next week, a drop of about 60 percent from two years ago, when 375 freshmen enrolled.
The enrollment plunge comes as the school also has been scrambling this month to fill about 60 teacher positions and other vacancies, including dean of discipline and director of special education posts.
Madison Park’s falling star stands in sharp contrast to other vocational schools across the state, many of which have lengthy waiting lists.
Interim Superintendent John McDonough said in an interview Friday that the enrollment drop highlights the “urgency of making dramatic changes” to the school, one of the lowest performing in the state. He delivered a similar message to the staff in a letter earlier this month.
“Students and their parents are telling us something important: Madison Park, as it exists today, is not a place where most students feel they will succeed,” McDonough wrote in the letter. “This is a message we must listen to quite carefully.”
In June, an intervention team appointed jointly by McDonough and the Boston Teachers Union recommended closing the school in three years if it fails to improve, and replacing it with a vocational school that would operate independently of the School Department.
McDonough has said he prefers making the necessary changes to turn around Madison Park, rather than taking more radical steps such as shutting it down. He also rejected a recommendation to oust the school’s headmaster but agreed with replacing other administrators.
Madison Park took steps last week toward filling its teaching and staffing vacancies, extending about 30 offers. McDonough said he felt confident that a hiring committee put in place at Madison Park in recent weeks could get the job done.
“We are in very good shape,” McDonough said. “The hiring team put in place is an incredible group that is clearly focused on their task.”
But some teachers questioned how the school year will be able to start smoothly on Sept. 4 with so many last-minute hires. The teachers said they are not surprised fewer students are enrolling.
“We don’t do a good job of getting the word out, but we need to have a quality product to offer,” said one teacher who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the news media. “We have to rebuild the store.”
Some of the enrollment decline was planned. The School Department for years had been removing students who have no interest in vocational education but were sent to the school to fill empty seats. Many teachers suspected this practice contributed to the school’s low performance because students who didn’t want to be there often caused discipline problems.
For this fall, the School Department decided to admit only students who have expressed interest in vocational education.
But the change in admission policy only partially explains the drop, said officials, teachers, and other supporters. Madison Park is suffering an image problem with all the difficulties administrators have had in turning it around, diminishing its appeal to students.
For instance, in the school system’s annual school-choice lottery, the number of incoming ninth-graders selecting Madison Park as one of their top three choices has fallen sharply. For this coming fall, only 121 applicants ranked Madison Park as a top choice in the first round of the lottery, down from 332 the previous year, according to the School Department.
Complicating the problem further is that the school system has done a poor job of marketing Madison Park and explaining the benefits of a career in the trades to students, the school’s teachers and supporters said. Madison Park offers classes in a range of trades, including digital design, cosmetology, plumbing, telecommunications, carpentry, and construction, according to its website.
“No one has sold the school,” said Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union. “I do think there is an underlying sentiment among a lot of people that entering a trade or vocation is not good enough. That is contrary to common sense. There are a lot of ways to make these trades attractive.”
Elton Bocage, a parent who is cochairwoman of the Madison Park school site council, said he was not surprised that fewer students enrolled.
“If you read in the newspaper that this school is not doing well or that school is not doing well, you’re not going to want to send your daughter or son there,” he said.
But Bocage, who has a son and daughter at Madison Park, added there is a lot of value in teaching students a trade. He said he is eager to see the school turn around.
“As a parent, I’m excited to see they are trying to do the right thing, but why did they wait so long to hire?” he said. “They are not going to get the best teachers, but they will get good teachers.”
McDonough, as well as many other Madison Park teachers and supporters, sees a silver lining in having a smaller but more enthusiastic freshman class this year — an opportunity to help rebuild a school with motivated students who want to succeed and who could entice more students to enroll in the future.
“I think there are a lot more students who would like to have a vocational-technical education,” McDonough said, adding: “We have considerable work to do.”