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Madison Park headmaster exit caps troubled week

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
Madison Park headmaster exit caps troubled week
Students arrived at Madison Park Technical Vocational School on Monday after a week roiled by schedule problems, student protests and the resignation of the school’s headmaster.

Students enter Madison Park High School. (Banner photo)

As if Madison Park Technical Vocational High School hadn’t had enough turmoil already this year, the Boston Public School department announced over the weekend that Headmaster Diane Ross Gary had resigned.

Gary’s departure came after a spate of problems at the school, including a late rush to fill some 60 vacant staff positions in August and an opening week in which many students had no class schedules in place, sparking student protests.

The announcement, sent to reporters and posted on the BPS website and Twitter Saturday night, said Gary has been “fully dedicated to the success of Madison Park” but that “transforming Madison Park must always be about much more than one person or one incident. It is about establishing a culture of excellence and distinction.”

Al Holland, a retired BPS headmaster who has led the Jeremiah E. Burke High school and the Health Careers Academy, will take over the Madison Park post for the immediate short term.

While McDonough’s words implied that Gary’s departure was a needed change, an additional statement from BPS spokesperson Lee McGuire noted that an inspection of Gary’s certification status Friday revealed she had never gained Massachusetts headmaster certification.

“Although she had applied for a Headmaster certification in August, 2013 the required paperwork and next steps to support that application were never submitted,” the statement said.

Gary supporters reacted with surprise and displeasure.

“I’m angered and disappointed by the manner in which Dr. Gary’s tenure at Madison Park was handled and supported,” said District 7 City Councilor Tito Jackson in a brief interview on Monday.

“It’s not right. It’s just not right. I don’t know how they can do this to children,” said Louis Elisa, longtime activist in the local NAACP and the Garrison-Trotter neighborhood and a member of Friends of Madison Park.

Elisa voiced skepticism about the certification issue; if anything, he conjectured, the state may have fallen behind in the process and not sent her the paperwork she needed to complete.

“It’s a red herring. A joke,” he said. “She wouldn’t have been interviewed if she didn’t have the qualifications.”

In an interview with the Banner last week, before Gary’s resignation, McDonough discussed the student schedule fiasco and protests. He took a measured tone, acknowledging “unacceptable” disruption and explaining how some of the problems occurred.

“We intervened before the first day [of school], anticipating that we would have schedules ready — but as we were digging deeper, we ran across more problems and had to start again from scratch. So it did result in unacceptable disruption to students and to staff,” he said.

Earlier, the Boston Globe had reported that student schedules had to be done over to make course selection equally fair for all students, including English Language Learners and students with disabilities. Schedules also had to accommodate a recent change in the number of periods in the school day.

Perhaps foreshadowing Gary’s imminent departure, McDonough stated there were two choices at Madison Park: “Embark on major change, knowing it will cause a level of anxiety for those who are used to doing their work in the same way for a long time … or be very clear that major change is not as important as keeping the status quo. It’s a question that each one of us who has an interest in Madison Park has to ask themselves.”

He declined to answer directly whether he and Gary were at that time seeing eye to eye, instead responding, “I still think we have an enormous amount of work to do. It is difficult and will take time. We are moving towards clarity. A whole community has to come together to be supportive of the future at Madison. Everyone I talk to, everyone I meet with, seems to share an understanding that things need to change.”

Members of the Friends of Madison Park had been vocal in their support for Ross Gary all through the recent problems.

“Dr. Gary has done everything she was hired to do, and more. She is loyal to the system — she could have thrown the administration under the bus, but she didn’t blame them,” said Louis Elisa.

“She’s been put in a very bad situation,” said Bob Marshall, a former Madison Park teacher and a member of the Friends group. Speaking by phone last week, he added, “She had no dean of discipline, no second in command. She didn’t have any help until April. They have not given her the resources to run the building.”

A School Department spokesperson said the department is currently “in the final stages” of bringing a Director of Student Discipline on board, as recommended in a report by a team of School Department and Teacher’s Union representatives that reviewed Madison Park’s operations last spring. School department officials did not say why the position remained vacant for so long or why Gray had been blocked from making a hire.

Marshall said the school’s situation has deteriorated rapidly over the past few years as a series of headmasters have come and gone. He puts a good share of blame on former mayor Thomas Menino, who instituted an Innovation Plan for Madison Park in 2012, and on McDonough, who has been interim superintendent since Carol R. Johnson retired in 2013.

“[McDonough] has to be held accountable for this,” said Marshall. “This is bigger than Dr. Gary. This is about governance, about the superintendent and the people the superintendent hires.”

Elisa and Marshall said they spent the better part of four days on site at Madison Park during the week of student protests and emergency schedule reorganization.

“These schedules should have been done in June. That’s a breakdown in the system,” Elisa said. “The late hiring — that’s not a Madison Park problem, that’s a systematic failure.”

A half-dozen students interviewed Monday morning as they waited for the school to open had not yet heard that Gary was no longer their headmaster. Some showed little reaction to the news; others said they were glad.

“She’s done nothing for the school. We never see her,” said Yardley Perez, a 17-year-old junior pursuing the school’s auto tech program.

“She never came up to us to talk. She never introduced herself,” said Xavier Rodriguez, 19, a senior studying plumbing.

None of the seniors’ schedules were in place when school started and no explanation was given to students, Rodriguez said. “It was all messed up. We just cleaned all day, and tried to help the freshmen.”

Perez said he came to school every day last week despite not having a schedule. “We were just watching movies. I came in all week and didn’t do anything,” he said.

McDonough told the Banner Friday that schedule revisions were still underway, but would be available online to students Sunday night.

Lian, a 14-year-old freshman in the culinary program, said her schedule had problems last week, but she had verified online that things were on track for Monday. During her week without a proper schedule, classes were conducted, she said, though not the right ones.

“Some of the teachers didn’t want to stand around, so they just started teaching,” she said.

Teachers and paraprofessionals near the school Monday morning mostly declined to comment. One teacher did not reveal his name, but said he thought some staff would be “elated” at the news of Gary’s departure.

Another teacher predicted there would be a mix of reactions, and offered some sympathy for Gary.

“I would just say, good luck to her. I think she was put in a difficult position,” he said. For any future headmaster to succeed at the school, he added, “it would take a very dynamic personality.”

Perhaps accustomed to the historical ups and downs of the school, this teacher’s focus seemed to be shifting beyond the recent drama.

“We’ll get it together,” he said. “We always do.”

McDonough spoke of a long process that requires patience, but said that some bold changes have already been made that will further the school’s mission. He listed three: changing the assignment process so that only students who choose to be at a vocational school are assigned to Madison Park; moving toward an administrative structure that is “more appropriate to Madison Park”; and changing student schedules from seven periods to eight, bringing them more in line with successful Massachusetts vocational schools.

“Changes have been made. There’s a lot more to be done,” he said. He also stated firmly that there are currently no plans he knows of or would support to close the school.

If there is a silver lining to this year’s early troubles, it may be that it caused students to step forward and be heard with a demand to be educated.

“It’s criminal, what they’ve done to our children,” Marshall said. “I applaud the students and parents who are saying, ‘We don’t have to take this.’”

Despite the school’s long struggle, Elisa remains keenly optimistic about the future of Madison Park and of vocational education in general.

“I’ve seen the resurgence of vocational education, a recognition that there is a combination of directions to get you through life,” he said. “A young man or woman who can come out and repair electronics or hybrid engines, they’re going to have a good future. The future is bright, if no one tries to destroy it.”

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