Mayoral candidate Martin J. Walsh rolled out an initiative Monday aimed at bolstering large district high schools in Boston, making clear that he is not ceding the issue of education to his opponent, John R. Connolly, who has made revamping the school system the cornerstone of his campaign.
Walsh’s proposal focuses on ways to prevent students from falling through the cracks at 10 of the city’s roughly three dozen high schools, many of which are beset by low graduation rates or lackluster standardized test scores.
At those large schools, he would establish ninth and 10th grade “academies,” which would split grades into smaller groups. He would also continue Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s effort to improve the quality of programs and instruction at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School, where an overhaul got off to a rocky start last school year.
In a press conference outside the long-troubled English High School in Jamaica Plain, Walsh emphasized that education reform would be a top issue if he is elected mayor.
“We can’t wait to address one of the most difficult challenges facing the Boston public schools, which is reforming the largest district high schools in the city of Boston,” said Walsh, a longtime state representative, surrounded by about 20 supporters.
Walsh said it was key to ensure that students are up to standards by 11th grade — whether they are on a path to college or moving toward a career in the technical trades — even it means that some have to repeat 10th grade.
“Rather than push our kids through the system, which currently happens, we will stop them,” he said. “We will make sure that when they get into 11th grade, they are prepared.”
As mayor, Walsh said, he would work to more deeply engage parents of high school students. To that end, he proposed crafting an online system with students’ academic information that could serve as an “early-warning” indicator if students are falling behind and are not on track to graduate.
The School Department already has an online system that allows high school students to track their progress toward graduation. A Walsh spokeswoman said the candidate’s plan is meant to enhance what already exists.
Walsh has previously rolled out policy proposals on education reform, including calling for universal access to prekindergarten and for a 10-year, $1 billion school construction and renovation plan.
A Connolly spokeswoman declined to directly comment on Walsh’s plan, instead pointing to Connolly’s own plans.
“Among other things, John has proposed reducing the central school bureaucracy and investing the savings in the classroom [and] extending the school day to give every student regular instruction in the arts, music, physical education, science, and humanities,” Natasha Perez said in a statement.
The School Department has made modest gains in overhauling its high schools, but state data indicate that more work remains.
Its four-year high school graduation rate has been climbing since 2007, hitting an all-time high of 65.9 percent in 2012, but it still lags behind the state average by nearly 20 percentage points.
MCAS scores have offered a mixed picture, as well. On the English exam, 79 percent of 10th-graders scored proficient or advanced this past spring, a record high.
But performance on the math and science exam has been somewhat stagnant. The proportion of students scoring proficient or advanced in math has fluctuated between 60 and 65 percent over the last four years, while students scoring in those two categories in science have ranged between 46 percent and 36 percent over the last four years.
The School Department has employed some tactics pitched by Walsh, including the online graduation progress tracker for high school students. A handful of high schools have established ninth-grade academies for students at risk of dropping out.
Beyond policy, Walsh on Monday sought to counter the appearance that Connolly has the edge on an issue that drives many voters. A poll released Monday found Walsh trailing Connolly by seven percentage points and suggested that voters most connect Connolly with the issue of education.
The poll, done by Suffolk University for the Boston Herald, asked 600 likely voters the first word or phrase that came to mind when they heard the name of the two candidates. Respondents gave a variety of answers, but for Walsh, the highest number, 28 percent, said union or union supporter or labor. For Connolly, a plurality, 24 percent, said education or schools. The poll, conducted Oct. 2-6, had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.
Walsh said he was “absolutely not” concerned that he had lost voters for whom education is an important issue.
“I have a strong record on education in what I’ve done as a legislator,” Walsh said. “Our plans are deep and concrete.”
Asked about what kind of demands he would place on the Boston Teachers Union, Walsh said, “There are some cases where I’m going to need an extended day” for school instruction.
He added that he did not think the relationship between City Hall and the union needs to be antagonistic because “they’re a big part of the solution.”