State control of Holyoke schools gets mixed reviews

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  • Holyoke High School sophomores Emmie Lundgren, foreground left, Kianny Linares and Jackie Jourdain, right, test the function of a pig lung during biology class March 6, one week before schools closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Holyoke High School sophomores Jackie Jourdain, left, and Emmie Lundren set up a lab exercise to measure their lung capacity during a Biology II class on Friday, March 6, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

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    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. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Joseph Metcalf School third graders Daniel Pierce, left, and Leilianliz Rodriguez do independent reading in Spanish during a class with teacher Cynthia Gerena at the dual language elementary in Holyoke on Friday, March 6, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

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    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. Listening are, from left, Kaniellys Martinez Villafane, Janelly Martinez, Josirus Rodriguez and Camilla Albarran Feliciano. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A student in Fleur Sustache's third grade class at Joseph Metcalf School completes an exercise in English at the dual language elementary in Holyoke on Friday, March 6, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Joseph Metcalf School teacher Fleur Sustache works with third graders Michael Soto and Nora Dunn in English at the dual language elementary in Holyoke. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Joseph Metcalf School teacher Cynthia Gerena reads “La Leyenda de Piedra Papel Tijeras” to her third grade class during a read-aloud session at the dual language elementary in Holyoke, March 6. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Joseph Metcalf School teacher Fleur Sustache works with third grader Michael Soto in English at the dual language elementary in Holyoke on Friday, March 6, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 4/28/2020 7:05:18 PM

HOLYOKE — Five years ago this week, the state took over Holyoke’s schools after an 8 to 3 vote by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Then education commissioner Mitchell Chester, who died in 2017, said at the time that state receivership should be seen as “an opportunity for the city.”

Five years later, receivership continues to be a point of intense debate in the city. And as receiver/superintendent Stephen Zrike steps down from his role after guiding the district during that period, many people are looking back at the state’s work in Holyoke and asking what’s next.

Holyoke Public Schools consists of 12 schools serving 5,350 students, 80% of whom identify as Hispanic, according to state education department data.

When the state took over Holyoke’s school district in 2015, its four-year graduation rate was 62% — the lowest in the state. The district’s dropout rate was 7.6%. The schools had been designated as underperforming a dozen years prior and had seen test scores decline since 2011.

The out-of-school suspension rate during the 2013-20014 school year was 20%, which was five times higher than the state average. Black and Hispanic students were suspended at a higher rate, with 27% of black students and 22% of Hispanic students getting suspended compared to 9% of white students. When combined with data from William J. Dean Technical High School, which at the time was separate from Holyoke High School, Zrike said the suspension rate that year was 29% for all students, 42% for black students and 33% for Hispanic students.

In its turnaround plan for the district, the state noted those numbers continued a trend going back to 2003 of at least one in five students receiving an out-of-school suspension each year. Nearly 29% of students were chronically absent during the two school years preceding receivership.

But receivership also meant the state removing control of Holyoke schools from the hands of a democratically elected school committee and its appointed superintendent. There were protests, including a walkout by Holyoke High School students who held signs with slogans like “our schools our education” and “a test score doesn’t define me!”

Five years later, there are still plenty in the community who are upset about the lack of local control over the city’s schools.

Former educators have spoken up at City Council meetings about high teacher turnover and questionable test scores. Community members protested state control at recent forums the state held as it searches for a new superintendent/receiver. And opponents of a failed effort to bond for the construction of two new middle schools have tied that project’s big defeat at the ballot box to the state.

“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.

But many in Holyoke are supportive of the work accomplished by the state, with some voicing cautious optimism and others endorsing receivership and the improvements it has brought.

“I believe that the district is in a much better place than it was five years ago,” state Rep. Aaron Vega, D-Holyoke, said.

Vega said there’s still plenty of work to do, but that improvements in the graduation rate, dropout rate and opportunities for students are signs of progress. He did note that teacher turnover is a concern for him.

“Receivership in part has been an impetus … for initiating very serious conversations about equity in the district, and who our district wasn’t serving and how we diversify our staff,” said Mayor Alex Morse, a graduate of the city’s schools. “I think one of our biggest faults in Holyoke Public Schools has been our inability to confront racism.”

As proof of its successes, the state points to improvements in some of those areas over the last five years. The graduation rate is now 72.2% and the dropout rate is 3.6%. The suspension rate dropped to 9% in 2019, with a 13% rate for black students and 9.6% for Hispanic students, according to state education department data. Chronic absenteeism is now at 25.7%, according to Zrike.

As for standardized test scores, the picture is a bit more nuanced. This past spring, the state rolled out its next-generation MCAS standardized test in high school math and English language arts, or ELA, as well as in science in grades 5 through 8. Comparing those numbers with the legacy MCAS is tricky.

The state has highlighted that over the last two years, the district has seen an increase of 4 percentage points in ELA — and 2 percentage points in math — in the number of students meeting or exceeding expectations on the MCAS in grade 3 through 8. The percent of third graders meeting or exceeding expectations in ELA has improved 5 percentage points over the same period, and achievement levels significantly improved for the district’s lowest-performing students in those grades, the state has said.

Math and science scores, however, haven’t improved. From 2015 through 2018, legacy MCAS data showed the percentage of high school students scoring proficient or advanced on the test dropped 4 percentage points in math and 2 in science. High school science data also declined from 2018 to 2019, and the math and ELA growth in grades 3 through 8 wasn’t fast enough to close significant gaps in student performance, the district has said.

The state has also touted its strengthening of the “middle school experience,” moving toward a model of separate elementary and middle schools to give students a more customized educational experience, expanded programming and less crowding in the schools. The state has also grown the district’s dual-language program, doubled the district’s pre-K seats and increased the number of students on individual education plans who are mainstreamed into the general education classrooms.

Some of that work, however, was started before the state took over in 2015, said School Committee Vice Chair Mildred Lefebvre, who was sworn in as a School Committee member at the beginning of 2014.

Lefebvre said that when the state stepped in, the city had just elected five new School Committee members and had recently hired a superintendent. Those officials had begun to put in place plans that are now contributing to the successes the state is highlighting: exploring new pathways for students and the Holyoke Early Literacy Initiative, for example.

“Some of that was implemented, it just had to continue going,” she said. “You can’t just implement something and expect a dramatic change to happen within a week or two.”

Lefebvre said there is still lots of work to do in the district, including closing achievement gaps for English language learners, students with special needs and students of color.

“I’m proud of a lot of the achievements that have been made, but I’ve been very clear and transparent that there is a lot of work still left to do,” said Zrike, who has been the superintendent/receiver since 2015. Zrike is now moving on to become the superintendent of schools in Salem, and the state expects to name his successor soon.

Zrike said that when he committed to spending five years in Holyoke, neither he nor anyone else thought receivership would only last five years. But he said he didn’t have an answer for how long receivership would last, noting only that Lawrence Public Schools have been in receivership since 2011.

“There are things where I think we should be further ahead,” Zrike said. “There isn’t a playbook or blueprint for districtwide improvement, and it has to be contextualized to the community you’re in.”

State officials also have no firm timetable for handing back local control. The state education department’s Senior Associate Commissioner Russell Johnston said, “As we see student outcomes improve, we can begin to have more of that conversation.”

Handing back local control to Holyoke would take a recommendation from the education commissioner, followed by a vote from the state education board. There is a lifelong Holyoke resident on the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, or BESE: Michael Moriarty, the executive director of OneHolyoke Community Development Corporation.

Speaking as just one member of the board, Moriarty described the process of regaining local control as “a very long, hard slog out of a deep hole that the city started in.”

“I think Dr. Zrike has done a really incredible job under incredibly challenging circumstances, but the problem is we’re not anywhere near where we want to be after these five years,” he said.

So what comes next for the district? Some have called for local control to be returned soon. Others want to see the state gradually hand the reins back to elected city officials. Many officials said they want to see the new superintendent/receiver continue the programming started under Zrike.

“I think our focus should be on improving the school system and improving outcomes for every student, and by default local control will come,” Morse said. “Local control will come back to us if we focus on the right things.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at
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