Will bold plan for Boston high schools get traction this time?
City vows new facilities, programming after years of false starts
YEAR AFTER YEAR, mayor after mayor, plans are hatched to transform Boston high schools – many of which have poor outcomes in subpar facilities – only to see them fade away unrealized as attention turns to other issues.
Mayor Michelle Wu vowed that this time would be different, as she announced a set of big plans on Tuesday that would dramatically remake two high schools and bring major changes to two others.
The city will pursue “big bold steps” that will be “transformational for our young people and our city,” Wu said, surrounded by city, school, and community leaders outside John D. O’Bryant School of Math and Science and Madison Park Vocational Technical High School in Roxbury.
The centerpiece of the plan involves O’Bryant, one of the city’s three high performing selective-admission exam schools, and Madison Park, one of the lowest performing high schools in the state. The city wants to relocate O’Bryant from its building next door to Madison Park to the campus of the shuttered West Roxbury Education Complex, where a new state-of-the-art STEM education facility would be built. Meanwhile, the campus Madison Park currently occupies alongside O’Bryant would be transformed into a much larger, markedly upgraded new home for the voc-tech high school, with plans to more than double its enrollment to 2,200 students in grades 7-12. The plans call for construction on both projects to begin in 2025.
Five years ago, a study commissioned by the district found that about 1 in 5 Boston high school students was not on track to graduate, a figure that had not changed significantly from a decade earlier. The off-track students were overwhelmingly concentrated in the non-exam high schools, a pattern that the report said exacerbated the challenge of helping them succeed.
“We have the most stratified high school system in the country,” said Neil Sullivan, executive director of the Boston Private Industry Council, which works to connect students with job training.
Nowhere is the bottom end of that stratification more evident than at Madison Park, which has struggled for years and is among the lowest-performing high schools in the state. Just 11 percent of its students scored proficient or higher in English on the 2022 MCAS and only 7 percent scored proficient or better in math.
Making its problems even more glaring, Madison Park’s woes have persisted over a period when other vocational high schools in the state have soared, with many of them showing strong academic outcomes along with providing high-quality vocational training. While many voc-tech high schools now have waiting lists for seats, Madison Park’s enrollment has fallen by about a third over the last two decades.
Along with a commitment to turn Madison Park into a “nation-leading and fully modernized vocational-technical school,” the city wants to renovate a former high school complex in West Roxbury High into a new STEM-focused facility housing O’Bryant, which would also add 400 students to bring its total enrollment to 2,000.
Wu and Superintendent Mary Skipper also announced two other high reforms. The dual language Margarita Muñiz Academy in Jamaica Plain will add 7th and 8th grade as part of the move to 7-12 grade schools across the district. The district will also expand the early college and dual enrollment program at Charlestown High School so that all students will be able to enroll in classes at nearby Bunker Hill Community College and earn credits toward an associate’s degree while in high school.
Early college programs in Massachusetts have shown strong results, with substantially more students who take part in the initiative enrolling immediately in college after high school, and more of them persisting into a second year in higher ed than matched peers.
Skipper said the changes at the four schools will be part of a system-wide effort to bring academic rigor, clear college and career pathways, and improved facilities to all high schools in the city. “We often accept incremental change. That is not good enough for our students,” Skipper said.
Lots of questions, however, remain unanswered. The city provided no cost estimate for the two huge school projects, only announcing proposed capital spending of $45 million for design work at Madison Park and $18 million to begin demolition and start design work at the West Roxbury site for O’Bryant.
The plans call for Madison Park to expand its reach in the community, offering evening courses for adults. The proposal to more than double its current enrollment of about 1,000 students, which includes adding 7th and 8th grades, assumes that the school can dramatically increase its appeal in a district that has seen a steady decline in overall enrollment.
Meanwhile, the O’Bryant proposal may face questions since it would relocate a school with a student population that is two-thirds Black or Hispanic to the far reaches of an overwhelmingly white neighborhood with limited public transportation access. Wu said the city would build a shuttle bus service and do whatever else it takes to ensure that “transportation will not be a barrier to reaching this campus, no matter where you live in the city.”
Will Austin, chief executive of Boston Schools Fund, a nonprofit that provides grants to expand high-quality school offerings in the city, expressed cautious optimism about the plan.
“With expansion of high-demand schools, research-back programs, and new pathways at Madison Park, there is a lot of potential for more Boston students to access high-quality seats,” he said. “Realizing that vision will take a lot of time, planning, resources, and the support of many partners.”
Whether the plan can be as transformational as Wu and Skipper say all depends on “the community process and the implementation strategy,” said Sullivan, adding that “the money’s got to be well organized to do this.”But he suggested that the Madison Park proposal seems stronger than some of the false starts of the past. “A path forward is visible for the first time,” Sullivan said. “You start with a vision, and you chase it.”