‘It’s bittersweet’: Zrike departs after leading Holyoke schools for last 5 years

  • Holyoke Receiver-Superintendent Stephen Zrike HOLYOKE PUBLIC SCHOOLS

Staff Writer
Published: 6/30/2020 11:49:52 AM

HOLYOKE — As June comes to a close, Holyoke will soon be moving on without a leader who has shepherded the city schools through a new era of state control. As of Wednesday, Stephen Zrike’s tenure as receiver and superintendent of the city’s schools officially over.

“It’s bittersweet,” Zrike said Friday. He is taking over as superintendent of Salem Public Schools, where he will be much closer to his wife and young children. “I’ve loved every minute of my time in Holyoke. I’ve loved the people; I’ve been treated well.”

Zrike was appointed as receiver-superintendent by the state education commissioner in 2015 — the same year Holyoke Public Schools were placed in state receivership. He entered the job amid protests over the state’s takeover of the city’s schools.

“It was a tense time,” he said. “There was a lot of anger and frustration and resentment of the state and receivership.”

Zrike said he obviously agreed with the state’s decision to take over the schools, but understood that the decision caused “deep wounds” that were going to be challenging to heal. Initially, he said he was unsure whether people in the community were going to be willing to work collaboratively with him.

“I have to say, I’ve been pleasantly impressed,” Zrike said. “It’s definitely surpassed the expectations I had in terms of the community’s openness and willingness to think differently about how we serve our kids.”

During his tenure, Zrike has earned the respect of many skeptics in the community. Earlier this month, the School Committee — a body whose powers the superintendent/receiver holds under receivership — presented Zrike with a plaque, a book of memories and a lengthy thank you video from families and staff across the district.

Receivership, and by extension Zrike, still has its detractors, though. Under state leadership, the district has had some of the highest teacher turnover rates in the entire state — a fact highlighted by former educators who have spoken out against state control of the district.

In a letter to the school community, Zrike noted that since the state took over in 2015, more students have access to advanced courses and the district has doubled its number of teachers and administrators who are people of color.

“While not everyone agreed with all the decisions we made, I am proud of the work that we have done to increase graduation rates, decrease dropout rates, improve literacy outcomes, expand dual language and full-day preschool opportunities, and launch early college and workforce development opportunities at the high school level,” Zrike wrote.

Zrike said in an interview that the district still has “a long way to go.” But he also said Holyoke Public Schools has made a lot of progress in that time.

“I’m proud of the accomplishments that so many people have contributed to over the last five years,” he said.

On May 7, the state named Alberto Vázquez Matos — the deputy superintendent of public schools in Hartford, Connecticut — as Zrike’s replacement. Born in Puerto Rico and raised in New York, Vázquez Matos is a bilingual educator who has previously served in educational roles in New York and Florida. Vázquez Matos begins his tenure on July 1.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.
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