Metro

‘I have real concerns about our high schools,’ says Mayor Walsh

Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s comments were perhaps his sharpest critique yet of the city’s education system and his hand-picked superintendent, Tommy Chang (right).
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/File 2016
Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s comments were perhaps his sharpest critique yet of the city’s education system and his hand-picked superintendent, Tommy Chang (right).

Mayor Martin J. Walsh said Monday that he has “real concerns” about the city’s nearly three dozen high schools, more than two years after making a publicized push to redesign the higher grades.

Noting the embattled Brighton High School and Madison Park Technical Vocational High School in particular, the mayor said he has asked Superintendent Tommy Chang to file a report on ways to improve the city’s secondary education.

“I have real concerns about our high schools and real concerns about the direction they are obviously going in,’’ Walsh said in a wide-ranging interview with members of the Globe’s editorial board. “We’ve spent a lot of time talking about and discussing [kindergarten] through eighth grades. We haven’t spent a lot of time talking about [ninth to 12th grades] . . . so I have real concerns.”

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The mayor’s comments were perhaps his sharpest critique yet of the city’s education system and his hand-picked superintendent, and they come weeks before Walsh will stand for reelection on Nov. 7. Chang and Walsh have thus far presented a united front in their plans to reform the embattled schools system.

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In a statement, school officials said Chang expects to file a report on the results of the district’s in-depth analysis on performance gaps in the high schools “later this school year.” The statement also said that Chang and Walsh are working together to ensure that students are reaching their full potential.

“Superintendent Chang is grateful that Mayor Walsh works closely with BPS to allocate funds to ensure that all students can succeed,’’ the statement said. ​

Walsh’s challenger, City Councilor Tito Jackson, has been pressing for early intervention and support for high schools before problems arise. On Monday, he again criticized Walsh, saying he has put corporations above the schools.

“It is ironic that Mayor Walsh is attempting to pull together a plan for the Boston public schools 3½ years into his mayoralship,’’ Jackson said, “and it only took him a month and a half to put together a plan for Amazon,’’ which is eyeing Boston and other cities for a second headquarters.

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In the Globe interview, the mayor laid out his priorities on education, housing, the environment, and public safety. He said that while the high school graduation rate is over 72 percent, more students should be getting diplomas.

He again pressed state lawmakers to help find innovative funding mechanisms to add more high-quality pre-kindergarten seats in Boston. And he noted that a quality education is central to eradicating the income inequality gap, lowering health disparities, and developing safer communities.

But the city’s high schools offer a challenge for Walsh and the school district. Two years ago, the mayor kicked off a much-hyped effort to reinvent the city’s ailing high schools. He launched an interactive website, a social media hashtag, and a series of forums to generate ideas for new approaches to high school education that drew more than 2,000 participants. But to date, his administration has offered no sweeping plan to overhaul the city’s nearly three dozen high schools.

The district developed some guiding principles to overhaul them, but it is unclear how widespread they are being used beyond at the designated underperforming schools.

In fact, six of the 10 schools designated as underperforming serve high school students. The district has 125 schools.

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The mayor said more should be done to target students at a younger age. Anything less, he added, “is too late.”

He also noted special challenges for the high schools, with three designated as underperforming since he took office.

For instance, Walsh said, 44 percent of the students at Brighton High School do not speak English as a first language, and he said that many do not score well on standardized tests, in part because of the language barrier. The mayor said the city has made investments in Madison Park and has seen incremental changes, but those gains are “not enough.”

Problems often overshadow the schools’ success. For instance, enrollment at Madison Park plummeted from 1,146 in 2014 to 841 this year, school data show. The school’s headmaster, Shawn Shackelford, was suspended last December and resigned in June for reasons the district has declined to disclose.

Dorchester Academy, which was declared underperforming by the state three years ago, is struggling to raise standardized test scores and graduation rates to avoid receivership.

And the headmaster at Roxbury’s Greater Egleston High School was placed on leave amid an investigation into enrollment problems that left 100 students locked out of the alternative school this fall.

Last month, the School Department said schools at risk of being declared “underperforming” by the state include East Boston High School, Charlestown High School, West Roxbury Academy, and Urban Science Academy in West Roxbury.

James Vaznis of the Globe staff contributed to this story. Meghan Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @MeghanIrons.