Holyoke students being shortchanged

But Chester not ready to press receivership


STATE EDUCATION COMMISSIONER Mitchell Chester is not ready to recommend that the Holyoke Public Schools be put into receivership, but he has not ruled it out either.

Low performance among Holyoke students is “persistent and pervasive,” Chester told members of the Massachusetts Board of Education during a meeting Tuesday. “These kids are being robbed of a future with the way things are going right now,” the commissioner said.

State education officials in January accelerated the timeline of a review of the underperforming school district amid indications that they were moving toward a takeover. The Holyoke system has more than 5,500 students attending 11 schools and, at $16,220, higher per-pupil expenditures compared to the $12,487 median of districts of similar size.

Receivership is one of the possible outcomes if it does not look like the district is making significant improvements. Under receivership, the entity put in charge would have authority to hire or fire staff, and void union contracts, in an effort to turn the schools around.

“I feel strongly that doing nothing and hoping for better results is not a strategy,” Chester said. “Receivership is not off the table. That is a possibility, but not a foregone conclusion.”

Chester said something needs to change because he does not see progress in the Holyoke schools, despite nearly a decade of assistance from the state. Education officials plan to meet with Holyoke school officials next week to discuss the situation.

Holyoke schools have some of the lowest achievement results in the state, Chester said, adding that only one out of every three students reads at grade level, and one out of four students is on grade level in math. One out of every five students has received an out-of-school suspension, and graduation rates are low, he said. He called the statistics “tremendously disturbing.”

Holyoke Schools Superintendent Sergio Paez, who took over the job 18 months ago, agreed with Chester’s assessment, but said he has begun to turn things around.

“I need more time,” Paez said.

He said receivership is not necessary, adding it would be “experimenting with kids.”

Paez said a combination of things are holding student achievement down, pointing to low expectations, a transient population, poverty, and the high percentage of students who speak English as a second language.

“At the same time, we are not giving any excuses about this, because I know as a superintendent that many, many communities across this country have been able to transform districts like Holyoke,” Paez said. “I am not creating any excuses. It is totally my call. I just need the time to be able to transform Holyoke, and I believe we are doing it.”

Paez, who immigrated to the United States from Columbia as a teenager, said he feels it is his “life’s mission” to improve the Holyoke schools. He was previously the assistant superintendent in the Worcester public schools, and also worked in Leominster and Fitchburg.

Massachusetts Teachers Association President Barbara Madeloni told the board receivership is the wrong answer.

Madeloni said the school district receives “grossly inadequate funding” to meet the needs of a student population that struggles with homelessness, transience, and poverty. Nearly half of the students do not speak English as their first language and one-quarter have learning disabilities, according to Madeloni.

Holyoke students need more bilingual classes, small class sizes, and better learning conditions, Madeloni said.

“What they don’t need is for the state to rush in with another new takeover plan that will create instability and dysfunction,” Madeloni said.

“We know that the answer to the question of what the children of Holyoke need is not to be found in private entities, the undoing of collective bargaining rights, and the threat of job losses,” she added.

Chester said when he became education commissioner in 2008 Holyoke was one of the districts he was most concerned about, along with Springfield, Fall River, New Bedford, and Lawrence. Those other communities have made great strides, while Holyoke has not, he said.

Chester said Paez has made some changes, but he questions whether, under the current governance, if substantial progress can be made.

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He said he expects to make a recommendation to the board about receivership in March or April.

“I will have a better sense of what it will take to move the district forward,” Chester said.