Under Boston’s latest plan to overhaul its high school system, Madison Park Technical Vocational High School has reason to celebrate: The city’s beleaguered vocational school will get new programs in fields like environmental science, biotechnology, and aviation, plus a modernized campus at its current location in the heart of Roxbury, and its enrollment will more than double to 2,200 students.
For the O’Bryant School of Math and Science, which has shared a multibuilding campus with Madison Park for around 30 years, the city’s proposal has been met with hedged enthusiasm and outright skepticism, with many feeling blindsided by the announcement. The plan would move Boston’s most diverse exam school to a state-of-the-art facility at the now-vacant West Roxbury Education Complex on the VFW Parkway — complete with new STEM programming, access to plenty of green space, refurbished athletic facilities, and a swimming pool. The size of the school would grow from 1,600 students to 2,000, with more seats for seventh and eighth graders.
It would also uproot the school from its longtime home in the Black cultural center of Boston to a predominantly white neighborhood that isn’t easily accessible by public transit.
“If one of the goals is to diversify the population of the exam schools, moving it to West Roxbury then creates a transportation challenge for kids coming out of Roxbury and other parts of the city,” said former School Committee member Hardin Coleman, dean emeritus of Boston University’s Wheelock College of Education. “On the other hand, it’s a great facility. ... I think it would be — with a lot of expensive work — a great high school.”
Mayor Michelle Wu and Superintendent Mary Skipper announced their vision for the O’Bryant School on Tuesday, along with a host of ambitious changes to several city high schools, with the goal of starting construction in 2025. The city plans to have dedicated shuttles from transit hubs across the city to the new campus, so students who have historically attended the O’Bryant can continue going there.
“It’s such a unique property. It always has been. Not only [for its] athletic facilities, but also the amount of green that is around the space,” Skipper told reporters following Tuesday’s announcement, about the benefits of the West Roxbury complex.
The West Roxbury complex opened in 1976, originally as West Roxbury High School, on 50 acres of property between St. Joseph’s Cemetery and a drive-in movie theater. The facility was considered on par with wealthy suburban schools. In 2005, former superintendent Thomas Payzant split up West Roxbury High into four small, autonomous schools, and the site was renamed the West Roxbury Education Complex. Its football, baseball, and softball fields were renovated in 2015, along with its running track and lighting system. But by 2019, the building’s physical conditions were so dire, the School Committee decided to close it.
A recent feasibility study of the West Roxbury complex, however, concluded the facility was in “good structural condition with observed minor issues,” though it would require costly renovations and expansions in order to accommodate the O’Bryant.
At the School Committee meeting Wednesday evening, members questioned Skipper about the city’s proposal for the O’Bryant, focusing in particular on the community engagement process in developing the plan and its overall lack of details.
“It was such a big media announcement with a lovely press release, but is there any there there for us to understand?” asked Brandon Cardet-Hernandez, a School Committee member, who said he just learned about the proposal this week.
“This is probably the biggest sort of high school move we’ve made in a very long time as a city,” he later added, “so I just hope that the School Committee can stay connected to this, and the information, as it comes.”
During the public comment portion of the meeting, several O’Bryant teachers said they were shocked and troubled by the proposal. Paulena Papagiannis, an O’Bryant history teacher, said teachers were notified during a brief Zoom call on Monday, 24 hours before the announcement, and students and families were told in the middle of the school day on Tuesday by e-mail.
“So you can imagine the chaos that unfolded in classrooms as students read the e-mail that their school was being uprooted, and students were confused and so were we, asking questions about what it means for us, but also about the process,” she said. “Why are they telling us like this? How long has this been going on? … It truly feels like a slap in the face.”
Nisa Harrison, an O’Bryant teacher, urged school leaders to change course.
“How can we think about a design that does not uproot the O’Bryant, but still gives Madison the building that they deserve?”
For decades, the O’Bryant School — known then as Boston Technical High School — was located on Townsend Street at the former site of Roxbury Memorial High School. In 1987, the school was moved to the campus it now shares with Madison Park, while Boston Latin Academy was relocated from an old post office warehouse in Fenway to the Townsend Street building. The O’Bryant School was renamed in 1992 in honor of John D. O’Bryant, the first Black member of the School Committee.
Of Boston’s three elite exam schools, the O’Bryant is its most diverse: More than a third of the students are Latino, 31 percent are Black, and 19 percent are Asian. Half speak a native language other than English, and nearly 60 percent are low-income.
At-Large City Councilor Julia Mejia said many of her constituents were worried about how the relocation would affect its student body.
“The concern is now, if they move to it to West Roxbury, the diversity may be watered down,” she said. “To me, it feels like school gentrification and displacement.”
In interviews, current O’Bryant students also expressed some concern about the commute, but also optimism about the possibilities. Freshman Dayana Hernandez, 15, said the location may present a challenge to students who live farther away, but she hoped the relocation will provide future students with more opportunities.
“The O’Bryant is a very good school, and we all look forward to coming here,” she said. “It doesn’t matter where it moves, as long as it gives comfort to the students and it helps the students, it’s good.”
Freshman Kelsey Zhao, 15, admitted she was a little jealous of future O’Bryant students who may have the opportunity to go to school at the new West Roxbury campus.
“I heard that it’s pretty big and has a pool and everything,” Zhao said, “but the exact year that they’re [starting construction], I’m graduating.”
James Vaznis and Adria Watson of the Globe staff contributed to this report.