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If Boston Latin School is the city’s crown jewel of public education, mayoral candidate John Barros wants Bostonians to recognize that Madison Park Vocational Technical High School is its hidden gem.

“It’s a diamond in the rough. Madison Park can shine just as bright as Boston Latin,” Barros, former chief of economic development under Mayor Marty Walsh and former Boston School Committee member, said in an interview.

Mayoral candidate John Barros.
Mayoral candidate John Barros.Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

To maximize its potential, Barros — like most other mayoral candidates — believes Madison Park must go through a major overhaul. Yet he is the only one supporting a somewhat radical position: If the city’s only vocational high school is going to have a chance at tackling its seeming intractability and become the gem it should be, Madison Park must be independent of the Boston Public Schools. It’s a reorganization that many stakeholders — including state officials — have proposed through the years but one that has lacked political support. Barros deserves credit for getting it right on how to reform Madison Park.

In late 2015 Madison Park was designated an underperforming school by state standards, meaning its test scores and graduation rates are among the lowest in the state. A recent report from the Pioneer Institute found that the school’s program that places students in paid positions with local companies lags far behind other vocational schools in the state. Madison Park offers 20 vocational programs such as carpentry, culinary arts, and cosmetology. Enrollment at the school has been on the rise, going from 887 in the 2018-2019 school year to 1,043 for the 2020-2021 year. Students of color are disproportionately represented in Madison Park: nearly all enrollees are Black or Hispanic (93 percent); district-wide, Black and Hispanic students collectively account for 71 percent of enrollment.

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Boston Public Schools superintendent Brenda Cassellius recently announced the hiring of Sidney Brown as Madison Park’s new head of school, the eighth one in nine years. Such leadership turnover and timid reforms around the edges have made progress at Madison Park minimal, with an incremental victory here and there. There is no question that the school has committed teachers and students. The graduation rate increased to 68.5 percent in 2019, up from 57 percent in 2017. It was still below the district’s rate of 73 percent and the state’s of 88 percent in the same year.

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Ask local education stakeholders what Madison Park’s biggest ailment is and you will probably get different diagnosis. Some say it needs more money; others claim that it needs expanded programming that fits the needs of the local economy better; still others say that there is no coherent strategy nor the right leadership to guide decisions. A lack of agreement on the root of the problem might, in fact, be the problem.

What if Madison Park could operate autonomously and have a separate board that would govern its decisions? Barros would create a separate budget and school board for Madison Park, which would give it the autonomy that many other vocational high schools have in the state. “More school based control of its own budget will allow school leaders to make resource decisions related to outcomes and improve their ability to fundraise,” reads Barros’s plan, which he is announcing officially on Tuesday. On Monday, Barros announced a $4 billion plan to build new or refreshed school buildings and campuses, including Madison Park’s facilities.

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Barros recognizes there are some reasons to keep Madison Park within the district. “Economies of scale, the shared costs,” he said. “But we should create redundancies that are specifically for Madison Park” in a way that allows stakeholders to have a meaningful impact on the student body, he said. Indeed, viable structural reforms must at least be on the table for Madison Park. “There is a need to show students and families that something different is happening at Madison Park to build their trust,” said Marinell Rousmaniere, president and CEO of EdVestors, a Boston-based education nonprofit.

Boston leaders have failed generations of Black and Latinx students and their families by accepting the status quo at Madison Park. Other vocational schools in Massachusetts are thriving — there are waiting lists to get in. Boston students deserve a top-notch trade school, and officials should recognize that the old paradigm isn’t working. They should move in the direction of Barros’s proposal.


Marcela García can be reached at marcela.garcia@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @marcela_elisa.