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The years have eroded the onetime grandeur of the beauty salon at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School. Inside the cavernous space, the dusty floor is buckling, the brown wash sinks look battered, and the aging furniture aches for replacement.
Even before the pandemic, the salon chairs were mostly empty. Few outsiders came there to get their hair and nails done for a nominal fee by the Roxbury school’s students who were mastering their craft. Not many educators and administrators from the Boston Public Schools headquarters around the corner, or the personnel at the police headquarters on nearby Tremont Street. Or even nearby residents looking to freshen up.
“Nobody trusted us,” said Klary Ruiz, a 2014 graduate who was in the school’s cosmetology program.
Or perhaps they didn’t know the students were there, waiting. And they can be excused for that oversight, because the cosmetology program has long been an afterthought at Madison Park just as Madison Park has long been an afterthought in the Boston Public Schools. In many ways, in fact, the program is emblematic of the school itself and its longstanding struggles, including lagging attendance, missed internship opportunities, revolving door leadership, and, critics say, the serial failure to prepare students on the vocational track for a living wage post graduation.
The victims, of course, are the students. And their dreams.
“I think it’s unfair to kids to send them into tracks that destine them to low-wage jobs,” said James Rooney, president of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, which has recommended auditing all of Madison’s programs, including cosmetology.
Most years, the program’s graduation numbers are mired in the single digits. The majority of its students lack the grades or attendance record to qualify for internships, called co-ops, at local salons. And of the 34 students who graduated from Madison’s cosmetology program between 2016 and 2020, only seven took the state licensing test to operate as a cosmetologist, specializing in hair, nail, and skin care, figures from the school show. (Only five passed.)
Madison’s executive director Kevin McCaskill acknowledged that the cosmetology program could be strengthened, but said that it plays an integral role in keeping scores of students — most of them Black and Latino young women — engaged in school. And at least when it comes to attendance and graduation, there are faint signs of progress overall at Madison. The graduation rate is up from 59 percent in 2015 to 69 percent last year. (Districtwide, the graduation rate is 73 percent.)
“We are in the business of providing something that students are passionate about . . . especially for students of color,” said McCaskill.
“How many times do [they] get opportunities to pursue things within our urban schools that [they] are really passionate about?”
Madison, with more than 1,000 students overall, offers 20 vocational programs in everything from electrical, culinary arts, automotive technology, and hospitality management to facilities management.
Some are progressing acceptably; some, like cosmetology, are floundering and in need of reinvention.
The work of reaching the long unmet goal of upgrading cosmetology and other less successful vocational tracks has been hampered by the school’s chronic changes in leadership. The school, which currently does not have a permanent headmaster, has churned through six since 2012.
Teachers have been “scared to implement something new because they feared a new leader would come in and say, ‘This is what we are doing now,’” said one current administrator who did not want to be named.
Without some leadership stability, many agree, it will be difficult for the school to overhaul its most moribund offerings.
Statewide more than 1,500 students have been enrolled in a high school cosmetology program each of the past three school years, making it one of the most popular vocational tracks across Massachusetts. Madison’s program currently enrolls more than 40 students between the 10th and 12th grades.
The salon, once bustling with clients in the 1980s, has seen business fizzle through the years. For now, it sits empty while students learn on their mannequins from Zoom classes at home. School officials said the pandemic has offered one silver lining, allowing them to introduce students to more industry experts, who provide live virtual hairstyling demonstrations and offer career advice.
Critiques of the program stretch back several years. In 2016, the School Department launched an internal review of the different tracks at Madison Park to assess whether they led to viable career paths in the city.
Makeeba McCreary, the superintendent’s chief of staff at the time, and Turahn Dorsey, then the city’s education chief, led the effort. The examination gave high marks to six tracks, including culinary arts, carpentry, and automotive technology; the examiners recommended a redesign for eight others, including automotive collision and Internet support services.
And they advised scrapping four programs, including cosmetology, which the report said only prepared students for low-wage jobs with few opportunities for career advancement.
“NOT a viable field,” read the report, which urged giving students more hands-on experience or incorporating more training in management — if the school kept cosmetology alive.
Yet nothing seemed to come of the effort.
By the time the report came out, the state had stepped in, declaring Madison Park underperforming and putting in place a turnaround plan that focused on boosting the academic instruction and improving graduation rates. But that renewed focus on core academics too often meant the school’s vocational offerings took a back seat in planning and prioritization, Dorsey said.
Three years later, in 2019, a Chamber of Commerce report urged Madison’s leaders to reinvent several of the school’s tracks, including marketing and broadcasting. It also applauded the school for other programs with job potential, including criminal justice and advanced manufacturing, and encouraged adding robotics and a program for veterinary assistants.
The chamber urged Madison to conduct an audit to assess whether its vocational programs, including cosmetology, were aligned with the needs of the labor market. In the summer of 2019, Madison’s headmaster established a committee to shore up the business and entrepreneurship component of cosmetology and other programs. But by the following spring, she was removed as part of a district shakeup.
The district expects to have a new leader in place by September — after aborting, and then restarting, a national search. In the meantime, McCaskill is leading the school. The committee the school established remains in place, and is proceeding slowly, he said. The audit has not been done.
Some current and former Madison leaders say external critiques may not fully capture cosmetology’s value at the school. In addition to keeping many students connected to Madison, cosmetology allows graduates to use their training to style hair and earn cash to help put them through college or supplement other income, McCaskill said.
“If you take away our [program], you’re taking away a lot of reasons that girls would come to the school,” said Elizabeth Russell-McCormick, an instructor in the cosmetology program.
The school serves a largely high-needs, economically disadvantaged student body; for many years Madison was the high school where many of the most challenging students ended up.
Until she became coordinator of Madison’s co-op program in 2019, LaTrelle Pinkney-Chase, a salon owner and mother figure to countless Madison cosmetology students, was one of the two instructors in the program. She said students received experience in such skills as curling hair, coloring hair, and nail care. Students “truly do learn all types of hair,” she said. “That doesn’t happen everywhere.”
The challenges, including poor attendance and lack of intern experiences, exist across the district and are not specific to Madison or the cosmetology program, Pinkney-Chase and others said.
“It’s schoolwide, and it’s districtwide,’' she said.
Students and graduates have mixed perspectives.
Ruiz, the 2014 graduate, craved more hands-on experience like the rare occasions that outsiders visited the salon. But most of the time, students worked on mannequins. “All the cosmetology program [entailed] was basically just working on dolls,” she said.
“It would have been better if we had an internship, even if it was unpaid.’'
As a result, Ruiz said, she never completed the 1,000 hours of school training required to take the state licensing exam.
She said students are sensitive to Madison’s leadership instability and the toll it has taken, particularly after former headmaster Charles McAfee was driven out in 2012. The lack of direction at the top manifested itself in general disorderliness and a lack of motivation at all levels. Ruiz said she started to come to school late and had trouble focusing.
But Nashaly Puente, a 21-year-old Dorchester resident who graduated from Madison in 2018, said she learned a lot from from the teachers as well as from trips to attend hair shows in Atlanta and New York. She also had plenty of exposure through her Madison coursework to the business side of running a salon. (The school has had a partnership with the Department of Mental Health, serving some of its clients at the salon.)
“If you decided not to move on with your career after high school,’' Puente said, “then that’s on you, because we had really good teachers.”
Nearly everyone agrees that more hands-on experience through the school’s decade-old co-op program would help strengthen Madison’s cosmetology program.
“It’s frustrating when I have to look at a great kid — and 90 percent are great kids — and tell them that because of your attendance and tardiness, I can’t recommend you into a co-op,’' said Pinkney-Chase.
A new report from the Pioneer Institute, a public policy think tank, found that overall Madison lags badly behind other vocational schools in internship placement. In 2019, just 29 of the 358 juniors and seniors in a vocational program at Madison Park had co-op jobs; that’s fewer than one in 10.
That year, the 25 regional technical vocational schools that reported their co-op figures had an average placement rate of 28 percent, with the range extending from 13.3 percent to 53.6 percent, according to the Pioneer report. Madison’s rocky performance stands out, and the consequences for students are very real.
“Madison Park has a key role to play in growing the Greater Boston economy,” said Jim Stergios, Pioneer’s executive director. “But to reach that potential and, importantly, to create a bridge for low-income students to enter the middle class, the school must succeed in connecting its students to area employers.”
Between 2013 and 2018, only one Madison cosmetology student had a co-op placement. Since then, five students have had co-ops at three different salons, according to school data.
School leaders fault poor attendance and academics for the low co-op placement rate. To qualify, the state requires students to complete the 1,000 hours working on clients at school. They also must have a school attendance rate of over 90 percent and a B average in the discipline in which they seek a placement.
The low rates of co-op participation translate into low rates of students taking the state licensing exam to become a hairstylist. Between 2017 and 2020, 113 students from Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical School in Fitchburg passed the test compared to Madison’s six.
McCaskill, who has been at the school for six years, said school leaders are trying to add more co-op partnerships and expand the Possible Project, an after-school program focused on entrepreneurship.
Rhode Island provides one model of how Madison Park could revive its cosmetology program, and with it other vocational tracks.
As in Massachusetts, state business leaders there had complained for years that vocational students were graduating ill-prepared for high-skill jobs. The state invested $5 million in a reboot of vocational programs, reasoning it would no longer support those that “had no value” to students or employers.
Now, students interested in cosmetology must also complete a business and entrepreneurship track, where they learn about business planning and budgeting.
“We didn’t want to get rid of [cosmetology],” said Steve Osborn, who oversees career, technical, and education programming for the Rhode Island Department of Education. “We want to be confident with the skills that our program graduates were [leaving] with.”
Dorsey, Boston’s former education chief, praised Rhode Island’s approach as smart because “it doesn’t take student choice away.”
Clearly cosmetology and other fields are popular courses of study. But, he added, it’s important to design them in ways that maximize students’ potential for success.
“It’s time to reimagine [Madison],’' he said.
Globe staff writer Bianca Vázquez Toness contributed to this report.