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Friends of Madison Park says BPS withholding resources

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He graduated from Dartmouth College in 1990 and has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO

Long before the school department sent an intervention team to Madison Park Regional Technical and Vocational school, there were signs of trouble and requests for help.

The high school — the city’s only vocational school — was under a 2012 Innovation Plan, a new headmaster was hired and the school department had invested over $1 million in additional funding for the school.

Yet when headmaster Diane Ross Gary sought last year to hire an assistant headmaster and a discipline officer for the 1,084-student school, school department officials refused her requests, citing budgetary constraints.

As unusual as it is for a school of that size to run with no assistant headmasters, the absence of help was even more puzzling considering the inordinately high number of students enrolled at Madison — 35 percent according to the BPS website — classified as having learning or behavioral disorders.

“There are special education students who do well in vocational technical schools,” said longtime Madison Park teacher Dennis Wilson. “The special education students who want to be here do well. The problem is there are many special education students who were problems in other schools who were transferred to Madison.”

A school department spokesman disputed the percentage of special education students at Madison Park, stating via email that the number is closer to 25 percent, but did not respond to queries about Gary’s requests for additional staff. The group Friends of Madison Park, of which Wilson is a member, say the actual number is higher than the 35 percent listed on the BPS website.

The school department launched a 2012 Innovation Plan for Madison Park, calling for a longer school day, deep partnerships with the business and vocational communities, and a school schedule that allows students to train for 21st-century careers while also receiving rigorous academic instruction. Since the plan was developed BPS has invested $370,000 to turn the building into one of the most technologically-advanced schools in the city, has purchased $350,000 worth of new textbooks and has invested $340,000 for new technical/vocational materials, according to a BPS press release.

Friends of Madison Park members say a specialist hired by the school department to forge partnerships with businesses and vocational communities brought in no new partnerships in the year he worked at Madison.

Interim School Superintendent John McDonough said in a press statement that the school has not made nearly enough progress. Last year the average Madison Park student missed five full weeks of school, according to the BPS press release. Attendance rates for African-American students are seven points below the district average and one in four Latino students at Madison Park missed more than seven weeks of school. Last year just 30 out of the school’s 1,100 students participated in an internship or co-operative career/vocational opportunity.

“None of us is meeting our obligations to prepare students for success at Madison Park,” McDonough said in his statement. “We must make major changes now so Madison Park can truly become the center of excellence and it has the potential to be.”

Members of Friends of Madison Park are questioning the school department’s decision to intervene at Madison Park, given what they say is a pattern of neglect at the school.

“We feel that Gary wasn’t given a fair chance to turn the school around,” said Wilson, noting that Gary was only at Madison for six months before the department stepped in. Now with the department forming intervention teams, Gary is in a sort of limbo.

“You can’t run a school like this,” said Friends of Madison Park member Bob Marshall.

Marshall says a program targeting students with learning and behavioral problems was terminated two years before Gary was hired.

In the meantime, Marshall says, teachers at Madison Park asked the school department for other resources, including a reading clinic, but received no additional assistance.

“We have kids coming into high school reading at a 3rd and 4th grade level,” he said. “We’ve lost a whole population of kids in those two years.”

Wilson said vocational technical high schools in Massachusetts commonly have no more than 19 percent special education students. And other Boston high schools have far lower percentages. At Another Course to College, an alternative high school in Brighton Mass, the percentage is 19.5 percent. At Boston Day and Evening Academy it’s 13.9 percent. The Jeremiah E. Burke school has 20.7 percent. And West Roxbury Academy has 19 percent.

Typically, schools with higher percentages of special education students have dedicated staff trained to work with students who have learning or behavioral difficulties.

At Madison Park, Gary, who has been headmaster since September 2013, had no specialized staff. And with no assistant headmaster, the task of mediating disputes and dealing with disciplinary procedures fell on Gary. In the 180 days of the 2012-2013 school year, the school meted out 205 suspensions — more than one a day.

While Gary was struggling to keep the school functioning with little support, the school department did dedicate $1 million in federal Race to the Top funds to Madison Park last year, bringing in high-paid staff to create partnerships between the school and businesses, evaluate teachers and enhance the school’s technological capabilities.

None of the extra staff had any expertise working with special needs students. And no new partnerships were created with businesses or other educational institutions, according to Friends of Madison Park members.

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