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Wu, Skipper propose big changes to BPS high schools

Proposal includes expanding Madison Park and moving the O’Bryant to West Roxbury

The John D. O'Bryant School of Mathematics and Science currently shares a campus with Madison Park Technical Vocational High School.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The city’s lone vocational school would double in size and its most diverse exam school would move to predominantly white West Roxbury under an ambitious overhaul of high schools announced Tuesday by Mayor Michelle Wu and Superintendent Mary Skipper.

Wu called the scale of the proposal, which calls for expanding access to college-level coursework and social services across the high school system, “a generational change that we haven’t seen in quite some time in the district.” The changes would cost tens of millions of dollars and take years to execute. They would also require building public support, a stumbling block for past mayors and superintendents who’ve attempted to revamp the school system.

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A cornerstone of the effort is splitting up the O’Bryant School of Math and Science and Madison Park Technical Vocational High School, which have shared a multi-building campus on Malcolm X Boulevard in Roxbury for decades.

Long-struggling Madison Park would take over the entire campus and be extensively renovated, enabling enrollment to double to 2,200 students, and creating space for new vocational programs, including a new partnership with JetBlue to train students in aviation technology. Adults would have the chance to take an assortment of night classes.

The O’Bryant, one of the highest-performing schools in the district, would move to a rebuilt facility at the now-shuttered West Roxbury high school complex on the VFW Parkway, allowing it to expand by 400 students to 2,000, with new spaces for biomedical science, robotics, engineering, and a swimming pool.

The West Roxbury location has downsides: It’s 8 miles away from the O’Bryant’s current home in Roxbury, the heart of the city’s Black community, and it’s not easily accessible by public transit. That could create commuting hardships for students who live in that area, as well as Dorchester, Mattapan, and East Boston, while making the new location more appealing to students who live nearby in mostly middle-class households.

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Wu, however, said the city will work with the state to devise a transportation plan so students who historically have attended the O’Bryant can continue going there. The plan is expected to include dedicated shuttles between the school and the West Roxbury commuter rail station and other transit hubs, which could drive up the district’s high transportation costs.

“These are the kinds of moves that we need to be making to set the foundation for our students’ success long after we are no longer in these current roles,” Wu said at a press conference outside the O’Bryant and Madison Park campus, flanked by city officials, students, and community members.

Other parts of the proposal call for a new partnership between Charlestown High School and Bunker Hill Community College so all students can take college courses; adding grades 7 and 8 to the Margarita Muñiz Academy, a dual-language high school in Jamaica Plain; and forging partnerships with health centers and other community-based organizations to provide high school students with more social services.

The city has no overall cost estimate for the proposal, which will require School Committee approval. Wu and Skipper said they won’t seek funding reimbursements through the Massachusetts School Building Authority, which can take years to develop and fund projects. So far Wu has designated $18 million in the city’s 2024 capital budget for design and demolition work at the West Roxbury complex, with a goal of beginning construction in 2025, and has set aside another $45 million to start designing the Madison Park campus.

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Students greeted the changes with a mix of optimism and caution.

Jaylene Estrella, 16, an O’Bryant sophomore, said that she worries students might miss out on feeling like they are included in a community like Roxbury and that the move could create very long commutes.

“A big part of this school is its diversity,” she said. “But overall, it’s a really good idea, and it also makes Madison Park better because it gets more space.”

Paul O'Bryant, right, listened as Superintendent Mary Skipper spoke.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Wu and Skipper are the latest city leaders to tackle the long-struggling high schools. Many of the approximately three dozen high schools score among the worst in the state on standardized tests and suffer from declining enrollment. Violence in and around Boston’s high schools has also been an increasing concern.

In recent years, previous administrations have added seventh and eighth grades to several high schools, raised high school graduation standards to align with college admission standards, and revamped exam school admission standards to give more disadvantaged students a chance to get in.

Some aspects of the proposal build upon ongoing efforts in BPS, which has long been trying to create more college-level courses and career pathways, and more partnerships to provide students with social services and mentoring to get into and through college.

Skipper expressed optimism the proposed high school overhaul would yield big results because of the breadth of the work. She said the proposal has four key points: creating challenging coursework and programs for students in every high school; forging outside partnerships; expanding career pathways and opportunities for certification in skills-based jobs; and renovating facilities.

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“For a very long time in K-12, we often accepted incremental change,” Skipper said. “That is not good enough for our students. It never has been and it never will.”

Madison Park has frequently been a target of high school overhaul initiatives. Former mayor Thomas M. Menino announced plans in 2012 “to transform Madison Park into a top-notch center for career readiness and workforce development,” but three years later the state declared the school underperforming, citing persistently low MCAS scores and graduation rates. Former mayor Martin J. Walsh also made overhauling Madison Park a centerpiece of his high school redesign effort, which fizzled after much fanfare.

The school continues to struggle and remains underperforming due mostly to low MCAS scores. Four-year graduation rates, however, have climbed dramatically, to 80 percent last year.

Dennis Wilson, a retired Madison Park educator and member of the Friends of Madison Park, said the new building for Madison Park is long overdue.

“Our kids deserve what other communities have, and there’s no doubt in my mind it’s a proud day for us,” Wilson said.

Laura Lopez, 20, who graduated from Madison Park in 2021 and now attends Bucknell University, said she was pleased about the changes.

“To hear that they’re making these big changes — and hopefully that brings some stability for students — it makes me really happy to hear because that’s what I wish I had,” she said.

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Moving the O’Bryant, however, could be a tough sell. Richard O’Bryant, son of the school’s namesake, John D. O’Bryant, who was the first Black Bostonian elected to the School Committee, said he was initially skeptical about the proposed move because of the commuting hardship it could create for many Black and Latino students.

But the prospect of the school finally having its own campus again — and a newly reconstructed building — won him over. The O’Bryant has been at Madison Park since the late 1980s. Previously, it was in a building on Townsend Street that now houses another exam school, Boston Latin Academy, a displacement that created some hard feelings in the O’Bryant community.

Richard O'Bryant spoke for the O'Bryant family. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

“It’s a wonderful opportunity for the school to not only provide a quality education but also be able to do it for more students,” said O’Bryant. He added, though, that “it’s incumbent upon us to maintain the course with the diverse student population the school has.”

The exam school admission process should preserve O’Bryant’s diversity, Skipper said. That process divides exam-school applicants into eight tiers that largely group students by the socioeconomic conditions of where they live. Admission decisions start with the lowest socioeconomic tier and are based on grades and test scores.

Wu defended relocating the O’Bryant after the press conference, citing a shortage of available land in other neighborhoods.

“It is an incredible space. There’s athletic fields all around that were fairly recently renovated, open space for exploration when it comes to environmental science,” she said.

Deanna Pan and Adria Watson of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

The Great Divide team explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and send ideas and tips to thegreatdivide@globe.com.


James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him @globevaznis.