Editorial: Receivership working, but more work to be done

  • Joseph Metcalf School teacher Cynthia Gerena reads “La Leyenda de Piedra Papel Tijeras,” by Drew Daywalt, to her third grade class during a read aloud session at the dual language elementary in Holyoke on Friday, March 6, 2020. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 5/8/2020 3:35:16 PM
Modified: 5/8/2020 3:35:04 PM

If there’s one thing both sides in the debate over state receivership of Holyoke Public Schools can agree on, it’s this: Five years into an experiment that has no fixed blueprint, there’s no clear finish line in sight for when the city will regain control of its own school system.

While opponents of state receivership decry that a local superintendent and school committee members elected by Holyoke residents have been denuded of their authority to lead, it’s premature for the state to hand back authority when the job isn’t finished — no matter how bad opponents want it. Despite some successes, Holyoke’s school system is not fixed after a half-decade of receivership.

To get a glimpse of how the issue divides the community, just listen to how two prominent politicians summed up their feelings about state receivership for the Gazette’s three-part series, “Receivership in Holyoke,” which ran last week. The series, by reporter Dusty Christensen, examines five years of receivership and was published a week before the state named a new receiver/superintendent to replace Stephen Zrike, who is set to depart in June.

“They made a big play to take us over and then provided us basically no resources, and five years later the schools are no better off than they were five years ago substantively,” former City Council president Kevin Jourdain said.

To Jourdain’s point, former educators have spoken up at council meetings about high teacher turnover — some 600 veteran teachers, administrators and staff have left the district since 2015, they say — and questionable test scores. Others say the state is to blame for a failed effort to bond for the construction of two new middle schools.

Not all believe receivership is a bad thing, however. State Rep. Aaron Vega, D-Holyoke, said he believes the district “is in a much better place than it was five years ago.”

Vega and other supporters say receivership has brought improvements for the 12-school, 5,350-student district. Among those are better graduation and dropout rates, fewer student suspensions and more opportunities for students.

The school system is heading in the right direction, especially when compared to the grim statistics that led the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to step in five years ago.

Some of those figures included a four-year graduation rate in 2015 of 62%, the lowest in the state, and a dropout rate of more than 7%; 12 years of being designated as underperforming; a decline in test scores since 2011; an out-of-school suspension rate during the 2013-20014 school year of 20%, which was five times higher than the state average; and nearly 29% of chronically absent students during the two school years preceding receivership.

These troubling statistics came amid a backdrop of racism, with black students and Hispanic students getting suspended in higher numbers than white students — though it should be noted that 80% of the district’s students identify as Hispanic.

Mayor Alex Morse, a graduate of Holyoke schools, says receivership has helped initiate conversations about equity in the district, both for students and for the diversity of its staff. “I think one of our biggest faults in Holyoke Public Schools has been our inability to confront racism,” he said.

So how do things look today? The graduation rate is now about 72%, and the dropout rate is 3.6%. The suspension rate dropped to 9% in 2019, including significant drops among black and Hispanic students. Chronic absenteeism is now at 25.7%.

Work in other areas is showing progress, including the Opportunity Academy, a set of alternative high school pathways for students not succeeding at Holyoke High School’s North and Dean campuses. Created in the second year of receivership, the Academy lets students continue or restart their work toward a diploma in three programs: Gateway to College, the Success Center and LightHouse Holyoke.

There’s a long way to go. While there has been some improvement on MCAS standardized testing for English language arts, math and science scores haven’t improved.

Then there’s teacher retention. Only 36 school districts out of the 403 in the state had worse teacher retention rates in 2019 than Holyoke, whose retention rate of 67% is 20 percentage points below the state average.

We agree that steps need to be taken to retain quality teachers, and to acknowledge some of the reasons why experienced teachers are leaving — a loss of seniority, longer work days and school year, a cutting of pay and sick days, and a new district approach that is more hands-off with students in the areas of behavior and discipline.

The last point is a drastic change in philosophy, one that calls for a more give-and-take relationship with students through so-called restorative justice programs that rely on meetings and reconciliation between victim and offender as opposed to punitive measures. Some teachers say this has led to a “drop in standards for behavior,” but such programs are having success in Holyoke and are being use in other districts in the region.

We agree with Morse, who says the way to build a stronger school system is not to “suspend and expel our ways out of these challenges.”

Under receivership, the district has made significant progress in hiring teachers who are more reflective of the students they serve. The number of teachers of color in the building has climbed 9 percentage points to 22% across the school system.

The state should not bow to the demands of those who want back local control. Why? Because we haven’t heard enough in the way of solutions from this group to warrant taking that chance. Receivership should stay the course, and local control will come.

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