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Mayor seeks to overhaul vocational high school

By Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / January 17, 2012
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Mayor Thomas M. Menino plans to call this evening for a major overhaul of Boston’s faltering vocational high school, seeking broad authority to create a job training institution that aims to help teenagers and adults climb out of poverty and into the middle class.

By day, the new Madison Park Technical Vocational High School would serve high school students, coupling real-world job skills and rigorous academics. By night, adults would take to the same classrooms, workshops, and laboratories to develop skills for the modern workforce. For Menino, who is set to unveil the initiative in his State of the City speech at Faneuil Hall, it is a chance to leave a legacy of job creation.

The initial focus will be on high school students, and the challenge will be significant. As part of the overhaul, the mayor would wrest significant power from the teachers’ union. Menino administration officials describe the plan as transcending curriculum changes at a single high school. Instead, they said, they hope to attack persistent unemployment, one of the most vexing problems facing the nation.

“If we can elevate Madison Park to its potential, we’re going to help many young people to succeed in the job market,’’ said William Symonds, director of the Pathways to Prosperity Project at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, who led a team of two dozen state and national specialists that examined Madison Park. “Let’s not forget that many of these students are living in poverty right now. We’re offering them a ladder out of poverty.’’

Now, more than 40 percent of freshmen who enter Madison Park do not graduate in four years, and more than two-thirds fail to perform at grade level on state standardized tests. In fact, many students are so disengaged they miss a month of school each year.

The Menino administration wants to lengthen the school day, revamp the curriculum, and radically change the schedule so students have more time for out-of-school internships. The goal is to emulate thriving vocational high schools in New Bedford and Worcester that alternate class schedules weekly. Students spend five days in a workshop or internship, and the following week return to the classroom, with technical training integrated with math, reading, and other traditional subjects.

Another key component will be developing partnerships with local businesses to lend expertise to Madison Park and secure private donations to pay for new programs. As an example, South End restaurateur Gordon Hamersley recently agreed to work with the culinary arts program and offer internships at his famed Hamersley’s Bistro, according to Menino’s spokeswoman, Dot Joyce.

“The mayor for a long time has looked at Madison Park as an institution with a wealth of opportunity for all of our residents, both students during the day and the underemployed or unemployed for evening classes and job training,’’ Joyce said.

The school, located in Roxbury, has roughly 1,200 students whose career training ranges from automotive repair to Web development, film production, and dental care. The campus struggled in the 1990s with violence and security issues, city officials said. A new principal helped make it a safe place to learn, and now city officials hope to elevate student performance.

“Much of vocational education over the last decade has been a dumping ground for low-achieving, difficult-to-educate kids,’’ said Thomas Toch, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. “What every student needs today, regardless of his or her destination beyond high school, is a strong grounding in academics. There are fewer and fewer jobs that allow kids to be successful with their hands that [don’t] involve their heads.’’

Madison Park once alternated weeks between academics and job training. But many students performed poorly on standardized tests, so school officials increased academics offerings. It did not work.

Now, city officials want Madison Park to follow the model established by Worcester Technical High School. Founded 101 years ago, the school is one of the nation’s oldest vocational institutions and has 1,400 students. Principal Sheila Harrity is happy cite statistics: 96 percent attendance rate, 92.5 percent graduation rate, and the highest standardized test scores in Worcester.

Administrators increased academic standards by doubling honors courses and offering advanced placement work in literature, language, statistics, biology, computer science, and environmental science. Students studying health graduate with certificates in CPR and first aid and credentials to work as nurses’ assistants, home health aides, and emergency medical technicians.

“We’re addressing the misconception that if you go to a technical vocational school then it’s a dead end, and you have to go directly into the world of work,’’ Harrity said. “If they choose to go into the world of work, they have the industry-recognized certification. If they choose to go to college, they have the academic rigor to allow them into any four-year school.’’

Andrew Ryan can be reached at acryan@globe.com Follow him on Twitter @globeandrewryan.

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