In June, President Obama attended commencement at Worcester Technical High School, where he praised the successful vocational school for preparing students to compete in a global economy. At roughly the same time, an intervention team called for Madison Park Technical Vocational School in Roxbury to cease operation in its current form absent a dramatic turnaround. Two schools founded just 40 miles apart to help mostly low-income students prepare for technical careers: one is a national model, the other a local basket case.
Many years of erratic leadership, unmotivated students, and low teacher morale dragged down Madison Park. In the spring, interim superintendent John McDonough vowed to get to the bottom of the school’s problems. But he may have gotten more than he bargained for. The intervention team appointed by McDonough came back with recommendations to terminate the school’s new headmaster and jettison a partnership with nearby Roxbury Community College. McDonough is refusing to do both.
Madison Park headmaster Diane Ross Gary lacks the administrative experience to run a turnaround school. But she does know the ins and outs of vocational education. So McDonough is looking for an executive director to run the school with her assistance. Together, he believes, they can transform the culture of a school that lacks focus on student success. If he’s wrong, Madison Park will only sink further into the morass of mismanagement.
The best formula for a quick reversal at Madison Park would be to attract students who are eager to learn a technical skill and are not just randomly assigned. No administrator or faculty member, no matter how talented, can run a specialized vocational school with students who show no passion for electronics, culinary arts, nursing, automotive technology, and other typical course offerings. To ensure success, Worcester and other vocational powerhouses maintain admission requirements that include grade submissions, attendance records, disciplinary records, and teacher recommendations. Madison Park needs to do the same.
Most vocational schools in Massachusetts also operate as independent school districts and draw on students from a wide geographic region. The intervention team recommends such a model if Madison Park fails to revive within three years. But why risk three more years of lackluster performance? A regional vocational school that draws from Boston as well as nearby cities and towns has a much better chance of attracting motivated students and teachers.
“The burden on us is to ensure that it succeeds,” said McDonough, who believes Madison Park should remain under the control of the Boston school system. But with the start of the school year just weeks away, he is still looking for an executive director and has yet to implement strict admission requirements. It’s not a good start.
Boston’s hospitals, high-tech centers, tourism industry, and other economic sectors would embrace the graduates of a well-run vocational school. And future employers care only about the quality of those graduates, not the governance of the school. Madison Park has failed in its current incarnation. Practically everything about it needs to change.