“SUCCESS IS TO BE measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life,” said Booker T. Washington, the famous turn-of-the-20th-century black educator, “as by the obstacles… overcome.”
February is both Black History and Career and Technical Education month. No figure in America’s past bridged those two worlds like Booker Washington, who was the first leader of Tuskegee Institute, Alabama’s historic black vocational college.
It’s troubling that a century after Washington’s death, the Boston Public Schools’ Madison Park Technical Vocational High School continues to struggle. It’s not for want of trying, as the city’s minority-majority vocational school has been the subject of numerous reform attempts.
In 2012, Mayor Menino’s blue-ribbon commission proposed a series of improvements, which were largely ignored. Next was a parade of leadership changes at the school that have been extensively covered by the Boston Globe.
In 2013, then-headmaster Queon Jackson was placed on paid leave pending a probe into possible credit card fraud. Jackson was exonerated and returned to work in the BPS in 2016 – after receiving nearly $400,000 in compensation.
In 2013, an ill-advised partnership between Roxbury Community College and Madison Park was announced with great fanfare, but in spite of the partnership the state eventually designated Madison Park as “underperforming” in 2015.
In the midst of all these changes, teachers and students arrived for the first day of the 2014-15 school year to find that they had no class schedules. In 2014, headmaster Diane Ross Gary resigned when it was revealed that she didn’t have the state certification required to lead a school.
In 2016, then-headmaster Shawn Shackelford was placed on leave. No reason was given for the move and he’s no longer employed by the BPS.
Tepid reforms and frequent leadership turnover are just part of the problem. The fact is the BPS central office seems incapable of managing a school that differs significantly in mission and programs from the other approximately 120 schools in the district.
Perhaps the best short-term answer for Madison Park’s students and families would be for the adults in the system to dust off that 2012 blue ribbon-commission report. It called for moving “Madison Park to an operational structure outside of district control, just as is the case in the state’s successful regional career vocational-technical schools.”
The recommendation theoretically would be a victory for common sense. Massachusetts’ nearly 30 regional voc-tech schools function independently from the districts they serve, and they are a genuine occupational and academic triumph.
Among the regional voc-techs, MCAS performance is up dramatically and the dropout rate is microscopic. Students’ post-graduation job placements with related businesses are impressive. These outcomes are accomplished with a student body that includes a far higher percentage of special needs students than the state average.
All of these results have made Massachusetts’ voc-tech schools a national model at a time when policymakers are trying to expand the pathways to college and career success.
These voc-tech reforms can be achieved by an in-district voc-tech school too. At Worcester’s high-performing technical high school, teachers have skillfully altered schedules, practices, and policies to accommodate and implement the vocational and academic standards required to create a strong program.
The dramatic results of the Commonwealth’s regional vocational-technical schools show that turnaround can be achieved at Madison Park, and the 2012 review of the school provides a roadmap for how to do it.
“If you want to lift yourself up,” Booker T. Washington said, “lift up someone else.”
The challenge now is for the state and the BPS to move beyond Madison Park’s saga and focus on implementing sweeping educational reforms that have the power to change urban students’ lives.
Tom Birmingham, a former president of the state Senate, is the Distinguished Senior Fellow in Education at Pioneer Institute and co-author of the landmark Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993. Ken Campbell is an executive director with IDEA Public Schools in Louisiana and a past president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options.