Two months after Mayor Michelle Wu unveiled her ambitious proposal to overhaul the Madison Park and O’Bryant high schools, questions about the details continue to mount.
Transportation to suburban West Roxbury for students at the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science, which now shares a campus with Madison Park Technical Vocational School in Roxbury, is a major, unresolved concern — though Wu recently raised a potentially game-changing solution: a new stop on the nearby Needham commuter rail line.
The new vocational programs the future Madison Park would offer have yet to be designed, and it’s not clear whether there would be enough interest to sustain a planned enrollment of 2,200 students, twice the school’s current size.
And frustration is rife among families, school leaders, and education watchdogs, who say they were blindsided by the city’s announcement. Many wonder why their feedback wasn’t solicited in the planning.
“It speaks to a deficiency in the process,” said Paul Reville, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and former Massachusetts secretary of education, of the backlash. But that doesn’t mean, he added, that the substance of the plan isn’t a good idea.
The proposal would solve two of the district’s most pressing high school problems: The city’s sole vocational school badly needs a redesign, and demand for exam school seats is intense. Wu and Superintendent Mary Skipper have convinced several O’Bryant alumni of the plan’s strengths, including Richard O’Bryant, son of the School Committee member for whom the exam school is named.
“It’s just been a long time coming,” O’Bryant said at a tour of the West Roxbury Education Complex with Wu and Skipper last Monday. “Alumni have always wanted us to have a nice place of our own where the school can grow. And the beauty of this is that Madison Park will also have its school redone and be able to expand and become a large-scale vocational center.”
Today, the ghosts of two former high schools — Urban Science Academy and West Roxbury Academy — haunt the West Roxbury campus on the VFW Parkway. It’s a 50-acre complex east of Millennium Park, complete with football, baseball, and softball fields, a six-lane paved running track, three tennis courts, and two half-court basketball courts.
Skipper and Wu envision a totally transformed and modernized building, with state-of-the-art labs, access to plenty of green space, and extensive athletic facilities, including an indoor pool. Moving the O’Bryant would also allow the school to grow from 1,600 to 2,000 students with more seats for seventh- and eighth-graders.
“It is very clear that there is demand for the O’Bryant — that that school, if given more space, would serve more kids,” said Will Austin, CEO of the nonprofit Boston Schools Fund, noting that more than a quarter of eligible seventh-graders who applied for an exam school seat for 2023-2024 did not receive an invitation. To be eligible to apply, a student needs have a B grade point average or higher, and a valid reading and math score on the MAP Growth test.
The geographic isolation of the campus, however, contributed to the closure of the high schools previously housed there. The School Committee voted to shut the West Roxbury campus in 2018, citing not only deteriorating building conditions, but longtime underperformance at the two schools. Test scores were low, and the campus educated fewer than 750 students, down from roughly 1,300 in the 2005-06 school year, when West Roxbury High School was first divided into four smaller high schools.
Skipper, who previously served as superintendent of BPS high schools, acknowledged that transportation issues played a role in high rates of chronic absenteeism, even with a shuttle service in place.
“It was a bare minimum shuttle and it only ran once. So if students missed it, they missed it,” Skipper recalled. “That’s why, right from the start, one of the first things we talked about was the importance of a true transportation plan.”
Wu and Skipper said the city is devising a plan to provide shuttles to the campus from transit hubs across the city. The plan may involve staggering school dismissal times or bus arrivals to avoid traffic jams on the VFW Parkway, city officials said. Wu said the city is also in talks with the governor and the MBTA about building a stop on the commuter rail line near the campus.
Jarred Johnson, executive director of TransitMatters, said Wu’s idea isn’t far-fetched. The MBTA could erect a simple wooden platform on VFW Parkway in a year’s time, while simultaneously building a full-service platform, he said. In three to five years, the MBTA could even extend the Orange Line to the commuter rail stop using existing tracks.
“It’s already something the T should be doing,” Johnson said. “It all depends on how aggressive the T wants to get.”
Not all O’Bryant families are convinced the city can pull this off, or even get a shuttle service working effectively. Boston has struggled with late and no-show buses, despite recent efforts to improve punctuality.
Mano Katsompenakis, of Charlestown, said his son, who will be a ninth-grader at the O’Bryant this fall, gets up at 5:30 a.m. to catch the Orange Line train to Roxbury Crossing in order to arrive at school by 7:05 a.m. Getting to the West Roxbury campus would mean riding another four stops to the Forest Hills station in Jamaica Plain, and a 12-minute drive by bus — if there is no traffic.
“It would take him over an hour to get to school . . . and that’s if the shuttle is ready to go,” Katsompenakis said. “I really do think, and I’m sad that I’m saying this, that this wasn’t well thought through.”
In the 2022-23 school year, Madison Park had roughly 1,100 students, down from nearly 1,700 two decades earlier. About 15 percent of freshmen were administratively assigned, meaning they did not choose to attend any BPS high school, or they applied to schools where there weren’t enough available seats, Madison Park head of school Sidney Brown told the School Committee. And the school has a stunningly poor attendance rate: 60 percent were chronically absent during the most recent school year, compared with 37 percent district wide.
A steering committee, led by Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce president and CEO James Rooney, is just beginning to consider what programs a state-of-the-art vocational school could offer to entice more students; school officials have mentioned everything from an aviation technology partnership with JetBlue to veterinary services. Skipper doesn’t seem concerned about not having it all figured out yet. She’s confident that if Boston builds a great vocational school, students will clamor to get in. Many of the state’s vocational schools have competitive admissions criteria and long wait lists.
“When you reintroduce [career and technical education], brand new equipment, machinery, lab space, and you promote it so that actually everybody knows what’s there, all of a sudden you get more students coming in and choosing it,” she said. “And there’s many students at this point that really want both career and college.”
The city still has no overall cost estimate for the Madison Park and O’Bryant rebuilds, which need School Committee approval. 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 $45 million to start planning the Madison Park campus. Both projects fall under the city’s Green New Deal for BPS, an initiative to spend at least $2 billion building and renovating schools while investing in environmentally friendly buildings.
Skipper and Wu said the city will not seek state aid for the rebuilds because obtaining funding from the Massachusetts School Building Authority can take several years, and is not guaranteed.
But Sam Tyler, former president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau and longtime observer of city finances, questioned that logic. The state reimburses up to 80 percent of eligible costs, which could translate into huge savings for Boston. At a recent state Board of Education meeting, Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley said renovating Madison Park could reach $1 billion, and the district would need another $300 to $400 million to refurbish the West Roxbury building.
“I don’t think the city can afford not to try to take advantage of MSBA, although I think it’s been more difficult for communities to receive money,” Tyler said. “There are other capital needs the city has to address, and there’s only a certain amount of money.”
By bypassing the MSBA process, though, Wu said, the gut-renovated West Roxbury site could open to O’Bryant students as soon as 2027, and a refurbished Madison Park could be ready in 2028.
“For a project that of this scale, of this importance to the district, we want to just accelerate the timelines as much as possible, and guarantee that we can get it done,” Wu said.