Teacher retention remains a challenge under receivership in Holyoke 

  • This graph shows the teacher retention rate for Holyoke Public Schools, together with the average teacher retention rate statewide (straight line), over the past decade. Holyoke’s teacher retention rate decreased after the state took over the public schools in 2015. The information is from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. 

  • Holyoke High School STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Holyoke High School, Wednesday, April 29, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Holyoke High School STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • William J. Dean Technical High School in Holyoke STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • William J. Dean Technical High School in Holyoke STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 4/29/2020 6:28:43 PM

HOLYOKE — Elizabeth Butler remembers feeling stunned after a meeting in 2017-18 school year with her administrators at Holyoke High School. 

Butler had been a teacher in the district for more than 20 years, and the number of students in her classroom had increased to its largest size ever that year. She said she spent six hours a night correcting papers, and raised that as a concern during the meeting. 

“The answer given to me was, ‘Give less work,’” Butler recalled in an interview.

As someone with high expectations for her students, she said the answer stunned her. When she left the district soon after, she said nobody even bothered to conduct an exit interview.

“Nobody tried to dissuade me — somebody with 22 years of experience and somebody who really put their heart and soul into the school,” she said. 

Butler is part of a group of former educators who raised concerns about teacher turnover and student test scores during City Council meetings earlier this year, and on the opinion pages of local newspapers. The group has claimed that since state receivership began five years ago, the district has lost more than 600 veteran teachers, administrators and staff. Those figures include three longtime sports coaches in the district — Tom Brassil, Bill Rigali and Kevin Roberts — whose departures under receivership were met with dismay from the group and others in the city.

Teacher turnover has been a significant issue raised by opponents of the state’s takeover of Holyoke Public Schools ever since Holyoke went into state receivership in 2015. And it is a problem that even receivership’s supporters acknowledge.

“Obviously one of the issues you have to look at, and the possible negatives (of receivership), is teacher turnover,” said state Rep. Aaron Vega, D-Holyoke, who has been supportive of the work the state has done in the city’s schools. “Maybe it was time for some to retire anyway, but that’s never a good situation when people feel overworked or pushed out.”

‘A churn in teachers’

Only 36 school districts out of the 403 in the state had worse teacher retention rates in 2019 ― the most recent year of data available from the state education department. Of those 36 districts, all but two are charter schools, where teachers unions for the most part don’t exist. At 67.2%, Holyoke’s retention rate is a full 20 percentage points below the state average.

In 2015, when the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted to put Holyoke schools in receivership, city residents expressed concern about teachers losing their jobs. It was an issue that then-education commissioner Mitchell Chester addressed in his press conference following the decision.

“There will be no mass firings,” Chester said at the time. “There is a lot of talent in Holyoke, a lot of great teachers, strong administrators — we need them to be part of the turnaround.”

In an interview in February, receiver/superintendent Stephen Zrike echoed some of that language, saying that he “didn’t feel like firing our way to excellence was the way to improve the district.” But he did acknowledge that significant teacher turnover has occurred under his watch.

The highest that the teacher retention rate has been under receivership was 74.4% in 2015, the first year of receivership. The teacher retention rate was 86.1% in 2014, the year before receivership. The lowest it dipped from 2010 through 2014 was to 82.6% in 2011. 

“Yeah, we’ve had a churn in teachers,” Zrike said. “It’s not unexpected to me.”

Zrike explained that the state has broader power to open and renegotiate contracts with teachers unions under the state’s receivership law. The statute gives the commissioner the power, if he deems it necessary “to maximize the rapid academic achievement of students,” to unilaterally reopen collective bargaining agreements in order to alter compensation, hours, working conditions or other contractual provisions. 

Under the law, that bargaining is limited to 30 days, with another 10 days for union members to ratify the changes. If those deadlines pass, the issue goes to a joint resolution committee of three members: one union-appointed, one School Committee-appointed and a third from the American Arbitration Association, who helps the parties pick a conciliator. If the joint committee doesn't come to a unanimous decision in 10 business days, the law says “the commissioner will resolve all outstanding issues.”

Leadership of the Holyoke Teachers Association, the union representing teachers in the district, did not respond to numerous requests for comment on this story over a period of months.

Zrike said that under the state receivership statute, he has increased the hours and length of the school year, tied compensation to evaluations made by principals and taken away teachers’ seniority. When asked why so many teachers have left, he highlighted the longer school day and year.

“The truth is many other districts offer days that are not as long with similar pay,” he said. “Our rates are similar to schools across the state that have longer hours and longer days.”

But for Butler, the teacher who spent 22 years in the district before leaving in 2018, that explanation doesn’t ring true for anybody she knows who has quit.

“The people who left Holyoke High are people that have 15, 22 years in like myself,” she said. “We’re not people who cut and ran because the school day went longer or because the school year went longer ... We were people who were there till 8 o’clock at night.” 

Butler said that pay and sick days were cut, and that the removal of seniority made teachers afraid to voice concerns or frustrations. 

“When you lose your seniority, you don’t speak out because you’re basically at will,” she said. “If there’s a cut, they can cut whoever they want.”

More than that, however, Butler said many teachers blame their departures from the district on a “drop in standards for behavior.” She said the district has taken an approach that is more hands-off with students, allowing them to make up work and missed classes in ways that wouldn’t have been allowed before receivership. 

She also blamed a “divisive” culture that she said divided students and teachers along racial lines. “It just became a very divided place, and it was hard to watch that happen. And it wasn’t our kids who created that, it was the adults who were brought in.”

That was a sentiment shared by Charlene Mahoney, an educator for three decades in the district before retiring in 2015 on the eve of state receivership. Mahoney has helped lead the group of frustrated former teachers speaking out in public recently. Though she left the district years ago, she said current teachers have complained to her about students missing from class, and that disciplinary issues are treated more lightly than they used to be.

“You can’t teach if there’s disruptions in the class,” Mahoney said. “That is people’s greatest concern is disruptions … Behavior is a huge issue at all levels, and they have not addressed that at all.”

Suspension rates drop

Supporters of receivership have pointed to the teacher turnover numbers as an area of improvement for the next receiver, who will be appointed soon as Zrike moves on to take the job of superintendent of schools in Salem.

On the question of discipline, plenty of people in the community see the state’s approach as a step in the right direction. They say that a focus on restorative justice has been a way to improve the district’s approach to behavior management and discipline, and to address racial divides that had always existed in the district.

In an interview, Mayor Alex Morse noted that prior to receivership the district had one of the highest out-of-school suspension rates in the entire country. 

During the 2013- 2014 school year, 20% of all students had received an out-of-school suspension — a trend that dated back to 2003. Black and Hispanic students were suspended at a higher rate that year, with 27% of black students and 22% of Hispanic students getting suspended compared to 9% of white students. When combined with figures from William J. Dean Technical High School, Zrike said the suspension rate that year was almost 30% for all students, 42% for black students and 33% for Hispanic students. 

In 2019, however, the suspension rate dropped to 9%, with a 13% rate for black students and 9.6% for Hispanic students, according to state education department data.

“Yes we’ve gotten push back from members of the community who want us to suspend and expel our ways out of these challenges,” Morse said. “But that isn’t a way to build a stronger community and strong school system.”

Restorative justice

At the center of the new approach to discipline in the district is restorative justice, an approach that prefers meetings and reconciliation between victim and offender as opposed to punitive measures. 

The Pa’lante Restorative Justice Program began to take shape at the high school back in 2013, and launched the same year that the state took over. Its work focuses on empowering student leaders to address harm, solve problems, and help classmates heal from trauma and oppression.

Luke Woodward, the director of Pa’lante, said that when the program began, there were not enough staff trained in restorative justice. That quick roll-out led to less order in the school, where previously students who didn’t do well at the high school or caused trouble were simply pushed out, Woodward said. As a result, teachers got burned out and upset, he said, adding that he understands that perspective.

“At the same time, right now this nostalgia for the way things were — and the law-and-order era — what they’re missing is that that ‘law and order’ came at the expense of our most marginalized students in Holyoke,” he said. “I don’t think it’s time to look wistfully back on an authoritarian model that pushed people out who couldn’t hack it.”

Pa’lante also has had success taking action against racism in the district, where 80% of all students identify as Hispanic. Examples of recent work include the removal of a sign outside Holyoke High — written in improper Spanish, with no English translation — that said “No Loitering,” and updating the high school’s Hall of Fame, which previously featured almost exclusively white, male figures from the city’s history.

Zaiell Vargas, a graduating senior and student leader in Pa’lante, said that those anti-racism efforts, restorative justice and other programs in the high school have created an environment of trust between students and administrators that previously didn’t exist.

“For me those projects were all very meaningful,” Vargas said. “In my junior year that’s where I was most proud, I was a part of all of these things that were for the better of our school culture and our school overall. We were making things more inclusive and equitable, and doing things the right way.”

The state also has recognized that although teacher turnover is high, the district has made significant progress in making the teaching ranks look more like the students they serve.

Under receivership, the amount of teachers of color in the building has climbed 9 percentage points to 22% across the school system. And Zrike said that work has been done by increasing access to teaching licenses by partnering with area colleges and organizations, and recruiting and prioritizing candidates of color, including from the ranks of paraprofessionals and other staff in the district.

“We have so many talented people working in our schools who are not teachers,” Zrike said. “And we want more people from our community to work in our schools.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the school year when Elizabeth Butler met with her administrators at Holyoke High School. That meeting happened during the 2017-2018 school year.

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

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