For Adrian Pena, the beginning of the school year at Madison Park Technical-Vocational High School was anything but normal.
"We would just wait and do nothing," Pena said. "They still wouldn’t let us use our phones or anything."
Hundreds of students like Pena and sophomore Justice Ramos-McCall were without class schedules for a week.
"The typical day for me was kind of hectic because it was my first year being a sophomore and I really wanted to get myself together," Ramos-McCall said.
It was just one more setback for 16-year-old Pena, who is repeating the previous year and is currently still a freshman.
"I never seen this before," he said. "Teachers themselves were saying it’s ridiculous; they never had this happen to them before."
Yet nearly four weeks and a student walkout later, a sense of calm is returning to the Roxbury school. Dozens of vacant teaching and administrative positions have been filled. Student schedules are in place, and the school can now handle any individual scheduling issues on its own. But questions remain about the long-troubled school. The size of Madison Park’s freshmen class is only about half of what it was just two years ago. And it is now on its fifth principal in several years, following the resignation last month of headmaster Diane Ross Gary.
"You have a high number of special-needs children and you have to have [Individualized Education Programs] written into their schedule for the classes they need to take," said Bob Marshall, a retired teacher who taught at Madison Park for 28 years. "It also has a high number of English-language learners. And then you also have to take into account that it’s a week in, week out because of vocation."
Marshall says it’s arguably the hardest place in Boston’s public school system to schedule. He adds that for too long Madison Park has been treated as a dumping ground for troubled students rather than a true vocational school.
"Up until last year or so, they’ve had no real screening process, so that students really want to go to Madison," he said. "We’ve had some students show up and well, 'How did I get here?' There hasn’t been active recruitment at the middle school level."
Jeanne Pemberton, whose daughter Kellsi is a Madison Park junior, says things have slowly gotten better — but admits there were still issues when her daughter finally got her schedule.
"She went to her classes to find out that her pre-calc was an English-as-a-second-language class," she said. "She does not need that. Her chemistry class had no teacher, no desk for a teacher."
Pemberton’s daughter was one of the students who organized last month’s walkout. She hopes the student action can begin to put the school on the right track. It was just this past summer that a school department review recommended Madison Park close within three years if it can’t dramatically turn around.
"My daughter has this year and next year," Pemberton said. "And where else am I gonna put her? Can’t put her in Quincy Vocational — Quincy High — which has vocation, because she’s not a resident. Can’t put her in Blue Hills Regional in Canton, because she’s not a resident. So Madison Park is the only school she has."
In an interview last month with WGBH’S Boston Public Radio, Mayor Marty Walsh said he’s committed to fixing Madison Park but cautioned that it won’t be easy.
"We’re gonna have other problems at Madison Park this year," he said. "This is only the beginning of trying to turn a school around. You can’t turn a school around in the course of a month — even in a year. It’s a mindset."
On that to-do list will be finding a permanent headmaster. Madison’s current acting headmaster Al Holland, who came out of retirement, has yet to commit to staying for the entire school year. Marshall says any added problems will only push Madison Park’s students further behind to compete for jobs once they’re out of school.
"If you drive around this city, you see all of these sites where there’s activity going on and all these cranes in the neighborhood; things being built," he said. "Our children should be apart of that."
Although such opportunities can be seen right down the street from Madison’s doors, students like Pena and Ramos-McCall can only focus on the present.
"My schedule is good now, but they need to add more people into it because I only got like two or three people in my class," Pena said.
"We’re trying to do credit recovery and get my credits up, but since the schedules are hectic, I can’t really do nothing about that," Ramos-McCall said.
It’s one more lesson that, for now, is on hold.