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Adrian Walker

Fixing Madison Park High, which just got another dose of bad news

 Boston’s Madison Park High.
Boston’s Madison Park High.Keith Bedford/Globe Staff

No one connected to Madison Park, the long-troubled vocational high school in Roxbury, was surprised by the news on Wednesday that it had been designated underperforming by the state. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t sting.

The designation, referred to as Level 4, means that the school is just one step away from being taken over by the state. The school’s low MCAS scores and high dropout rate are what prompted its underperforming status.

For several years now, Madison Park has been the standard by which lousy city high schools are measured, and sweeping changes have been called for before.

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A charismatic leader was brought in recently to begin to turn the school around. Kevin McCaskill’s job as executive director is to stabilize a school that has had four leaders in five years. He was joined by Shawn Shackleford, the new headmaster. The magnitude of their task, and its urgency, is even clearer now.

“I think inconsistent leadership really takes a toll on student performance,” McCaskill said. “That’s an emphasis that people have talked about. And another thing is maintaining academic rigor in our core curriculum.”

School Superintendent Tommy Chang noted that efforts to begin to turn the school around have already begun, and now — with the prospect of a state takeover looming — they accelerate. “We have to see this as an opportunity,” Chang told me. “We’re not going to change any of our plans.”

Being designated as underperforming has certain consequences, both welcome and painful. The faculty and staff will be required to reapply for their jobs, which is a polite way of saying that many of them will probably be replaced. On a more positive note, there is more flexibility in how to operate the school. Both a longer school day, and even an extended school year, are possible.

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The school also becomes eligible for more state money, which could only help. A “turnaround plan” — the umpteenth — will be due to state officials by spring.

It’s long been confounding that a school that opened more than four decades ago has been such a consistent failure. Madison Park should be a conduit for upward mobility, training students for jobs that don’t require a college degree. But in truth, neither the school department nor the city as a whole has ever cared enough, for long enough, to make it work. Everyone has been content with its sustained mediocrity, or worse. That’s an awful message to send to a community.

When I visited the school a couple of months ago for an earlier column, some things were readily apparent. The staff, much of it relatively new, seemed dedicated to helping the students perform better. The students were trying.

But years of underachievement have taken a toll, too. The school enrollment of 950 students is far below capacity, which makes it feel like a huge building with too little going on. And the weak test scores were predictable, because, as McCaskill readily admitted, the school has become a place to ship struggling students, whether they actually want vocational education or not. It hasn’t been an attractive option for ambitious students and their families for some time.

What will it take to turn Madison Park around?

Some changes are obvious. Typically, Level 4 schools get new leadership teams, but Madison Park already has one. They need time to fix the school. A longer school day couldn’t hurt. The school’s sprawling vocational program may need rethinking. Perhaps Madison Park — which offers everything from culinary programs to auto mechanics to cosmetology — is trying to do too many things to do them well.

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“I think it is a reallocation of resources,” Chang said. “Absolutely, there will be more resources needed.”

Chang is right on the need for resources. But fixing Madison Park will take an emotional investment as well. It won’t succeed until failure becomes unacceptable. In its long history, that is the commitment the school has always needed from Boston, and has never received.


Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.