Is state takeover of Holyoke schools coming?

Community concerned; mayor takes nuanced stand

IN 2012, THE chronically low-performing Lawrence school system became the first district put into state receivership under a 2010 education law that gives the state sweeping new powers over struggling schools. Will Holyoke be next?

That question now looms over the Western Massachusetts district of 5,500 students, where achievement has long been low and dropout rates high.  A state review team spent five days in Holyoke last month, observing schools and meeting with teachers and administrators.  A report of their findings will be submitted later this month to the state commissioner of elementary and secondary education, Mitchell Chester, who will formulate a recommendation for what to do. But he is making no secret of the fact that he thinks big steps are needed.

“My level of concern for Holyoke is extremely high,” says Chester. “Despite an awful lot of energy and effort to move things in a positive direction in Holyoke, I see no evidence that we are on an improvement trajectory there.”

Student achievement scores are among the lowest in the state, with only 32 percent of students proficient or higher in English and 28 percent proficient or higher in math. Statewide proficiency averages are 69 percent for English and 60 percent for math. Holyoke suffers from high poverty rates, and English is not the first language for nearly half of the district’s students. Nearly one-quarter of students are identified as special needs students with disabilities.

Holyoke saw an increase in its graduation rate and a decrease in its dropout rate in new statewide results released last month, but the figures remain among the worst in the state, with just 60 percent of students graduating from high school on time, while its dropout rate stands at 19 percent.

“Holyoke continues to be a high level of concern for me,” says Chester. “There’s no question about it, that state receivership of the district is a course of action that’s on the table.”

That possibility is not sitting well in Holyoke, where school leaders say they have not been given a chance to demonstrate that new programs and approaches they have put in place are working. Sergio Paez, the district superintendent, arrived in Holyoke 18 months ago from Worcester, where he served as manager of support services for students.

Paez says support programs he has put in place explain part of the improvement in the district’s graduation and dropout rates. He says he also has been able to double the amount of professional development training time teachers have, and says the district now has a system for keeping classrooms on course to cover curriculum matter during specified weeks throughout the school year.

“I know we are on the right track,” says Paez. “But in a year and a half it isn’t possible to show the kind of improvement the commissioner is expecting.”

Devin Sheehan, vice chairman of the Holyoke School Committee, says the panel has had a “laser-like focus on student achievement” and that the state should give Paez’s leadership more time. “We need to take the groundwork we’ve laid and build from there,” he says.

Gus Morales, president of the Holyoke teachers union, calls the threat of a state takeover a “slap in the face,” and says the union is organizing a coalition that includes parent groups and other unions to fight it.

Mayor Alex Morse is staking out a more nuanced stand. “There’s a lot of angst in the city right now about what receivership means,” he says.  Morse says he does not necessarily support a state takeover, but he says academic achievement levels in the district are “unacceptable.”  Paez, the district superintendent, needs “more authorities to implement his reforms,” says Morse. “There are a number of promising things happening in Lawrence that could potentially be looked at,” he says of the receivership there.

In Lawrence, the takeover gave state-appointed receiver Jeff Riley broad powers over staffing, with tenure protections essentially voided. He dismissed less than 10 percent of the teaching force, however. Lawrence brought in outside organizations – a local charter school operator and a Boston organization that has specialized in school turnarounds – and gave them control over individual schools. Meanwhile, Riley has tried to push control down to the school level, giving principals and teachers leeway to design a schedule that makes use of additional hours that the receivership tacked on to the school year as part of the effort to improve student outcomes.

Early results have been encouraging, with English proficiency rates in Lawrence up 3 points after years of flat performance and math proficiency up 13 points since the receivership began.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

Paez fears that a decision by the state to seize control of the Holyoke district is a done deal. “The writing is on the wall,” he says.

Chester says he has not yet made a decision about receivership. But he’s sending every signal that a state takeover – or some kind of equally dramatic break with the current structure – is likely in Holyoke’s future.  “I haven’t concluded that that’s the best course of action or the only course of action at this point,” he says of receivership. “At the same time, I’m very skeptical that, short of exercising some extraordinary intervention in Holyoke, we’re going to see much change.”