Holyoke School Committee seeks end to state receivership of school district 

By SOPHIE HAUCK

For the Gazette

Published: 09-20-2023 5:52 PM

HOLYOKE — The Holyoke School Committee voted unanimously to petition state Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley to release the city’s public schools from state receivership during a special meeting on Monday night.

All eight committee members appeared hopeful while signing the petition alongside Mayor and committee Chairman Joshua Garcia, following an impassioned public comment period at the William J. Dean Technical High School. Dozens of local control advocates attended the meeting, with more watching from an overflow viewing station in the cafeteria and online.

“We’re, from the bottom of my heart, certainly ready,” Garcia said after reading a series of metrics to demonstrate growing student achievement in Holyoke. “There’s a lot of improvements [to come], but we’re ready to do that on our own.”

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education voted to designate Holyoke Public Schools chronically underperforming in April 2015, after many schools in the district consistently rated in the bottom 10th percentile of student achievement statewide. Since then, the district has operated under four receivers — whose role is to oversee a turnaround plan — including current receiver Anthony Soto, an HPS graduate who met with Riley in May to present improvements the district has made in the past eight years.

Among those changes, the HPS graduation rate increased by nearly 15 points in recent years, reaching 74.9% in the 2021-22 academic year. Growth was most notable among English learners, who saw a 30-point increase in graduation rates, and students with disabilities, who saw a 27-point improvement.

Garcia also noted on Monday that 53% of juniors and seniors were enrolled in advanced placement and dual enrollment courses during the 2022-23 academic year, and out-of-school suspensions decreased by 59% between 2013 and 2022.

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Many who spoke Monday said continuing the receivership would have a detrimental impact on students’ and teachers’ well-being. At one point, Erin Brunelle, an at-large committee member, became choked up, after listening to a posthumous letter from former Holyoke High School teacher Ralph Benoit, who described administrators softening course requirements to bolster graduation rates.

“What we are doing is finding a way to increase graduation without increasing knowledge,” Benoit wrote. “This is criminal neglect.”

Holyoke continues to perform poorly on standardized testing. More than 50% of elementary and middle school students did not meet expectations on the 2023 MCAS English/Language Arts, Mathematics and Science exams. In the state’s 2023 accountability report — which considers MCAS scores, graduation rates and attendance, among other metrics — HPS was still ranked nearly 30 points below the 75% threshold to be considered meeting targets.

Garcia countered Benoit’s claim that the public schools have become less rigorous in a conversation with a Gazette reporter following the vote, attributing much of the district’s growth to flexible guidelines under the receivership that allowed the district to make sweeping structural changes, such as experiencing a 15-point increase in hiring teachers of color.

“Receivership was a necessary tool at the beginning,” Garcia said. “Now, are we at a place where things dramatically improved? No, absolutely not, there’s still a lot of work to do. But there were a lot of gaps that were closed.”

The DESE will do a full review of Holyoke’s performance data before it makes a recommendation to the commissioner as to whether the state should release the school district from receivership, said Glenn Koocher of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. There is mounting interest in releasing Holyoke public schools, he noted, citing Gov. Maura Healey’s pledge on the campaign trail to “demand a plan day one for getting Holyoke out of receivership.”

Holyoke is one of three school districts under state receivership, along with Lawrence and Southbridge. All three districts have remained under state control for more than five years.

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