Guest columnist Patrick O’Connor: Out of school and in jail

Holyoke City Hall as seen from Lyman Street. 

Holyoke City Hall as seen from Lyman Street.  STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

By PATRICK O’CONNOR

Published: 01-17-2024 3:58 PM

There is a crisis in Holyoke’s public schools. Each year, a classroom-sized group of students with learning disabilities drops out. These students are then more likely to be arrested and jailed on Holyoke’s streets. Although unintentional, we are creating a scenario where year after year we lose students to the streets and prison. And this year may turn out to be our worst.

Right now, an extreme shortfall of teachers is leaving classrooms without content instructors, and special education students without proper support. Such absences will only increase the likelihood of what is already a tragic number of students quitting school, many of them students with learning disabilities and high needs.

Of the 53 students who dropped out of Holyoke’s high schools last year, 21 had learning disabilities and 49 had high needs, according to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education [DESE]. Of the 120 students who dropped out two years ago, 40 had learning disabilities and 112 had high needs.

School Superintendent Anthony Soto wrote in an email last month that this has been a concern for many years in Holyoke.

Since being taken over by the state, the district has been able to increase the graduation rate for our students with learning disabilities, he said, but it’s still not enough. He noted that this year in particular has been challenging with the shortage of staff.

According to information provided to the Holyoke School Committee, our public schools currently have 72 empty teaching positions, with 24 of those empty spots being for special education teachers. In addition to this, the district has 41 empty paraprofessional spots. Paraprofessionals are an essential part of the support system in classrooms, especially classes with students who have high needs.

Who’s shouting about this? Who’s shouting about the fact that Holyoke teachers are some of the lowest-paid educators in Hampden County? The only districts that have a lower average teacher salary than Holyoke are Palmer and Monson, according to DESE.

The link between failing schools and crime is well established. Advocating for our public schools is advocating for safer streets.

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These problems in our public schools bleed into our community. Students we fail to educate today become the citizens we imprison tomorrow. Children with learning disabilities who fail to receive proper support in our classrooms are more likely to land in our prison cells.

A U.S. Department of Justice study found that 32% of state and federal prisoners and 40% of local jail inmates have at least one learning disability. The American Institute for Research reported that 33.4% of youths in juvenile correction facilities were reported as being eligible for special education services, which is almost four times higher than in public schools.

The risk of being jailed jumps even higher for students who drop out of high school. According to the federal government’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 41% of inmates in the nation’s state and federal prisons and local jails and 31% of probationers had not completed high school or its equivalent.

Our leaders should be explaining this connection to the public, while loudly lobbying the state for help funding and staffing our schools.

If we keep at our current pace, in 10 years, at the very least 500 students will have dropped out of our high schools. That is an entire middle school of students, many of whom will be getting their education and employment on the streets — and we put them there.

We need to be realistic about the dire state of our schools. Not only are we down 72 teachers, but a recent survey given to teachers by parents found that 83% of the 131 teachers surveyed said they are considering quitting because of unaddressed problems. That is another 108 teachers. We can’t just push this aside.

These problems rain down onto our students who will eventually quit, too. We have a crisis in our public schools. We need to treat it as such before another generation of our children ends up out of school and in jail.

Patrick O’Connor lives in Holyoke.