Guest column Stephen Zrike Jr.: Two new middle schools just makes sense for Holyoke

  • These renderings show what two new proposed middle schools in Holyoke would look like. Voters will decide Nov. 5 whether to fund the project. SUBMITTED RENDERING

Published: 10/16/2019 6:00:19 PM

If you were in middle school, where would you do your best work?

Solving math problems in a classroom with windows bolted shut, no air conditioning, and poor ventilation inducing trouble breathing and resulting in higher rates of staff/student illness? Or in a classroom with fresh air and a functional heating and cooling system?

Conducting science experiments in a school with no science lab and cracks in the wall, or in a science and engineering lab with state-of-the-art equipment?

Working on foundational reading skills in a crowded hallway two floors away, or in a breakout room adjacent to your classroom where you can easily rejoin your peers for the next lesson?

Eating lunch in a cafeteria with no windows, low ceilings and noise pollution, or in a cafeteria with natural light and sound panels that reduce ambient noise?

Exercising on a playground with dated equipment suitable for early elementary students, or in a welcoming green space with a soccer field that can be used during and after school for sports?

The answers are obvious.

In each scenario, I would prefer to spend my time in the second place. That’s what I want for my own children and for all of Holyoke’s children. Regrettably, a safe and healthy learning environment is not available in many Holyoke schools. The community has been sounding alarm bells that it is well past time to do something about it!

The totality of our schools’ infrastructure woes were detailed in an independent 2016 facility audit. Two buildings — Peck and Lawrence — failed their structural evaluations outright. Five buildings rated extremely low in overall quality across 24 criteria.

Our case was so severe that in August 2019, the Massachusetts School Building Authority granted the city $75.8 million to fund a two-middle school solution. The award is the result of years of community input on how to address decades of insufficient investment in our schools. This money will pay for nearly 60% of the cost of the new and safer schools.

The remainder of the cost would be paid via a debt exclusion override that citizens of Holyoke will vote on during the Nov. 5 citywide election. While a modest property tax increase will be required, our crumbling school infrastructure is a crisis. This proposal is an opportunity to act for the health, safety and education of all of our children.

The benefits of two new middle school buildings extend to all pre-K–12th grade students. This proposal makes it possible for us to plan for the structural and financial sustainability of the school system now and into the future.

We will save $4.5 million a year by running fewer and more efficient buildings. HPS has committed to investing $1 million of this savings every year to reduce the project’s overall tax burden. This proposal also allows us to apply the remaining savings to:

<sbull value="sbull"><text xmlns="urn:schemas-teradp-com:gn4tera"></text></sbull>Efficiently move to a separate elementary and middle school model.

■Continue expanding dual language, world languages, arts and enrichment opportunities, and after-school programming.

■Open a Pre-K Center to specialize resources for early learning and expand the number of preschool seats.

■Hire more math and literacy tutors and interventionists to support struggling students.

■Purchase additional curricula, technology and materials so teachers can effectively meet their needs.

■Offer stronger, customized training for teachers and staff.

■Reduce class sizes, particularly at younger grades.

■Hire more social workers and counselors to support the mental health needs of our students.

Research demonstrates that spending four years in a new school can increase test scores by 10% in math and 5% in English Language arts. This increase is in part due to noncognitive improvements like increased student attendance and greater teacher effort. In a city like Holyoke, where we have some of the state’s highest rates of asthma (which leads to missed days of school), we cannot continue to have school buildings with poor air quality that exacerbate our students’ health and attendance issues.

As an educator for more than 20 years, I know that when teachers have access to modern technology, equipment, and learning spaces, they can teach grade level standards with rigor and relevance to ensure our students leave Holyoke ready to compete in a rapidly changing, global economy.

I encourage you to become informed about this issue. This proposal invests in our children. This invests in our community. This proposal invests in the future of this great city.

Dr. Stephen Zrike Jr. is the Superintendent/Receiver of the Holyoke Public Schools (HPS). Since 2015, HPS has lengthened the school day for elementary and middle school students, launched two new schools, expanded extracurricular and enrichment opportunities, and redesigned the high school experience. The graduation rate has increased by 20 points to 72 percent.


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