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The Boston Globe

Opinion

Jim Stergios

Madison Park school needs autonomy to succeed

Two-and-a-half years have passed since Boston Mayor Tom Menino promised, in a State of the City address, to make Madison Park Technical Vocational High School a model for the city and state. We have seen no such transformation.

Nor is that transformation likely to materialize from the proposal by Governor Patrick and Menino to have Madison Park partner with Roxbury Community College, itself a troubled institution.

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The right answer lies in the 2012 report issued by the mayor’s own blue-ribbon panel, which called for moving the school “to an operational structure outside of district control, just as is the case in the state’s successful regional career-vocational schools.”

Greater autonomy over money, teacher hiring, curricular decisions, and operations is the ingredient that will allow Madison Park to fulfill its enormous promise.

When people think about school autonomy, they often think about charter schools. And it is true that charter schools dramatically outperform the school districts from which their students come.

But there are other relevant examples worthy of consideration.

While it does not fully operate outside the control of the Worcester district office, Worcester Technical High School has reaped enormous benefit from its enhanced site-level authority. Recent data show Worcester Tech’s four-year dropout rate hovering around 2 percent; Madison Park’s rate stands at a troubling 21 percent. In 2009 to 2010, Worcester Tech’s enrollment numbers in Advanced Placement classes jumped by 93 percent. That same year, exactly one Madison Park student scored well enough on an AP test to earn college credit.

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Boston leaders should learn the lessons from Worcester Tech, but they should also look to Massachusetts’ 26 regional vocational-technical high schools. Like charter schools, the regional schools operate outside a larger district system, and they have built a remarkable record of success on the foundation of autonomy.

Each of these schools controls its own budget and personnel, each has the ability to tailor programs to suit student needs. Blackstone Valley Vocational-Technical High School, for example, extended its school year by 15 days; Norfolk Agricultural Tech focuses on creating strong curricular and teacher linkages across academics and career training.

From 2001 to 2007, the MCAS scores of the 26 regional schools jumped 40 percent. Their dropout rate today is less than 4 percent, compared to approximately 12 percent statewide. More than half of regional vocational-technical high school graduates go on to post-secondary education.

Moreover, nearly one-quarter of the students at regional vocational-technicals have special needs (versus 17 percent statewide). Eighty percent of vocational-technical special education students graduate, compared with 63 percent from other public high schools in the Commonwealth. Their wait lists have grown longer as people learn of the quality of education they are providing.

David Ferreira, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Vocational Administrators, put it this way: “The needs and responsibilities of vocational-technical students are unique. It only makes sense for schools to have the freedom to set policies and procedures customized to fit those students.” Madison Park can’t do that as an outlier within Boston’s sprawling 127-school system.

School-based management was a key provision of the Bay State’s landmark 1993 Education Reform Act. The state’s charter and regional vocational-technical schools stand as strong evidence that site-level control matched with strong accountability can lead to fast improvement in student outcomes.

For Madison Park to become a model, vocational-technical educators who run the school must have the power to make decisions. The job of Boston district officials should be to hold them accountable for results.

Such a change will only happen if voters demand it. They must insist that the candidates vying to replace Menino fulfill the promise he made. Boston students deserve — and need — access to the excellent technical education that students at regional vocational-technical high schools are getting.

Jim Stergios is executive director of Pioneer Institute.

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