On the first day of the academic year for Boston Public Schools, district leaders are paying particular attention to the city's only vocational-technical high school, Madison Park.
"I have 128 schools to chose from, I want to be at Madison Park with you," Boston Public Schools Interim Superintendent John McDonough told the new freshman class Thursday morning.
McDonough was sending a message when he chose to open the first day of the new school year at Madison Park. The school is trying to emerge from years of struggle.
Two weeks ago, some may have expected chaos — the district still hadn't hired more than 60 staff members and teachers. But the school is showing signs of progress.
In response to criticism the school had become a dumping ground, district leaders cut enrollment from 1,140 students last year to 986.
Basketball and football coach Dennis Wilson, who has spent 32 years teaching at Madison Park, says in the past some students had not signed up to be there.
"When you send kids that don't want to be there, that are problem and disruptive kids at other schools, and you dump them and force them to go to Madison, that's a recipe for disruption and failure."
Ross Wilson, Boston's assistant superintendent for human capital, says this year, based on an innovation plan and recommendations from an intervention team that looked into problems plaguing the school, Madison Park now has an admissions policy like those at other vo-tech schools in the state.
"We've been very intentional about the entering freshman class," Ross Wilson said. "Part of that was to make sure that the students who enroll at Madison Park choose a vo-tech area. And we've intentionally lowered the class size of the freshman class."
Longtime Boston activist Louis Elisa helped push for that change.
"I think now, having smaller classes, bringing students who are committed to vocational-technical education, you'll have a different mind set of students and teachers in order to get the scores up and get the work done," Elisa said.
The district also made all Madison Park teachers re-apply for their jobs. But the slow approach to hiring alarmed many parents and community leaders — it didn't really get underway until mid-August, when most other schools had already filled their staffs.
Today, all but two positions have been filled.
Among those beginning Thursday was physical education teacher Paul Rogers. He's a former Holland school teacher who lost his job when the under-performing school was taken over by the state.
"I like the challenge," Rogers said. "We get to start over. There's a lot of good things at Madison Park that a lot of people don't know about, and I'm looking forward to a great year."
Joining the superintendent in greeting new students at Madison Park Thursday morning were members of a group called Friends of Madison Park — elected officials, community activists, alumni and parents fighting to get the school back on track.
Elton Bocage has two children at the school and is co-chair of its school site council. "My son is studying plumbing, and this is a perfect school for him to do that, a trade school," he said.
Among those touting the kind of vo-tech education Madison Park wants to offer is MBTA General Manager Beverly Scott. Her agency is partnering with the school on a new program for students.
"We had the first transit cadets, if you will, at the T this summer," Scott said. "What we asked them to do was a focus on developing a public safety and a courtesy campaign that could in fact wind up being utilized across the schools."
State Education Secretary Matt Malone says his department is committed to supporting the school and its training-based programs.
"These are all areas that are going to have jobs, high-paying jobs that are going to guarantee people middle-class incomes," Malone said. "And that's what we want, and we want to do it right here in the middle of Roxbury."
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