Holyoke’s school challenge

We must work together to improve our city’s schools

THIS PAST TUESDAY, after a careful review of the Holyoke Public Schools, Commissioner Mitchell Chester recommended that the state Board of Education take a vote on whether to place our district under state receivership. His recommendation came after months of vigorous, passionate debate on the local level about the costs and benefits of this action, and the concerted efforts of local leaders, including my administration, to maintain local control of our schools. However, with this week’s announcement, it’s hard to deny the overwhelming likelihood of receivership. I would like to use this opportunity to reflect on what Chester’s recommendation could mean for our city, and suggest the best possible path forward for all involved.

Whatever our feelings about receivership, I think we can all agree that the current outcomes of our students are unacceptable. Only 60 percent of our high school students graduate in a four-year period, which means hundreds of students fall through the cracks each year; only 15 percent of our third graders read at grade level; only four Dean Tech students participated in a co-op with a local business last year. These figures are not only damaging to our kids’ prospects; they have ripple effects throughout society. Whether or not you attend the public schools, or have a loved one in the public schools, the shortcomings of our school district have profound implications in all areas of our civic life.

A struggling school district means fewer economic prospects for our residents. Lacking options, too many of our young people seek their livelihoods in crime. The problem of the school-to-prison pipeline is well known: 80 percent of inmates at Hampden County Correctional Center never completed high school. A struggling school district also means lower property values, a higher share of the population on social services, and a diminished sense of civic pride. Improving our schools would not only improve the prospects of our students; it would make our city safer, more prosperous, and more equitable.

If we care about leaving a better Holyoke to future generations, we must do whatever it takes—right now—to fix our schools. It goes without saying that receivership is a scenario that nobody, the state included, would want for Holyoke’s schools. In a perfect world, Holyoke would be able, on its own, to provide a world-class education to all of its kids. And while they must no longer be an impediment to our progress, the reality is that systemic obstacles, including poverty, homelessness, and unemployment, have caused great difficulty for our school district.

That we face these problems is no reflection on our teachers and administrators who have worked so hard to improve our schools. On the contrary, the state’s report highlighted many areas where our schools have excelled despite poor systemic conditions. Our award-winning early literacy program has made a difference. Our graduation rate has increased. Our teen pregnancy rate has dropped precipitously. Superintendent Dr. Sergio Paez, Assistant Superintendent Dr. Hyry, and our school committee have laid a strong foundation for future success. Local partnerships have given our kids access to tutoring, after-school programs, and extracurricular activities. Anybody who’s attended one of Holyoke High School’s musicals knows what a stellar arts program the school offers. Now, more than ever, is the time for us to showcase what works here and to reconsider what doesn’t. In the event of receivership, our voices will be no less urgent, nor less necessary, than they are today.

As we consider what receivership could look like in Holyoke, let’s look at the case of Lawrence, Massachusetts. In 2011, the entire school system of Lawrence was placed under state receivership, and the state appointed an individual receiver who continues to serve, in effect, as a new superintendent. At the time, 92.4 percent of Lawrence’s students were low-income, and one in four students dropped out of high school—conditions similar to Holyoke’s.

I have spoken personally with teachers, principals, and administrators in Lawrence about how a state partnership worked for their district. In Lawrence, the state appointed an individual receiver—a man from the Boston Public Schools with decades of public school experience. He came to town in a spirit of working with community members as partners in a common effort. Principals were given more autonomy to run their schools. The vast majority of teachers were retained, and most of those who left did so by choice—in fact, the local teachers union was given complete authority over one school to implement changes as they saw fit. The receiver had the flexibility to preserve what was good about the Lawrence schools, while making swift and strategic changes where needed. Today, the Lawrence schools are seeing improved MCAS scores and increased graduation rates.

In that case, while imperfect, we see the power that an effective, collaborative state-city partnership can have. Changes in Lawrence weren’t without some difficulty, or the asking of difficult questions, or occasional discomfort. People had to compromise; debates were still to be had. In my conversations with teachers and principals, I have heard them describe how, despite some initial skepticism, they came to embrace their partnership with the state, and to celebrate the results. While the process hasn’t been perfect, the outcome is clear: today, the students of Lawrence are getting an improved education.

If there is a lesson to be learned from Lawrence, it is that the future of our schools is still very much ours to shape. I have advocated, in the event of receivership, for the state to appoint an individual receiver. Such a setup would ensure the greatest access and influence for our local stakeholders. Moreover, I will continue to make sure that every member of our community who wants to help our schools has a chance to do so. In the event of receivership, we must work together with the state to sever the connection between poverty and academic achievement, and make our public schools the great equalizing force they should be. Whether students arrive at school from the Highlands or from a homeless shelter, they deserve the same access to a quality education.

Through our own grit and determination, we have made progress for our schools. Receivership, while unfortunate, will offer us the opportunity to accelerate our efforts—if done right. Every day we wait, more and more of our kids will drop out; more and more kids will feel their hopefulness fade and their prospects dim. Instead of rehashing debates about control, let us recommit ourselves to creating better outcomes.

To change outcomes, we need a partnership. This is true on any number of issues. Since the Baker administration took office, I have been in touch with the governor, the lieutenant governor, and their cabinet to discuss the need for such a partnership between our administrations. We’ve discussed ways to address economic development, employment, poverty, and homelessness. While an improved education system will help address these problems, we should be looking for ways to work with our partners to pursue a holistic approach to Holyoke’s issues. Without letting poverty dictate the destiny of our school district, we can address all of these challenges innovatively and collaboratively.

Over these past several months, as the possibility of receivership has loomed over our schools, I have listened to the concerns, the fears, and the frustrations of people throughout the city. To people who have been fearful about what receivership could mean, I want you to know that I have shared in your pain and frustration. To the teachers who have raised concerns all throughout this process, know this: we need you now more than ever—your students need you now more than ever. The worst thing we can do is give up now, and let the state alone dictate our future.

We have come too far to turn back. We have made too much progress to let any setback deter us. It’s time to show what we can do. It’s time to summon what is best in each of us and to come up with sound ideas for reform. If we all pull together—teachers, school committee members, administrators, parents, students, business leaders, citizens—I have no doubt that we will change our schools, and shape a brighter future for our students.

Let us remember that, beneath our passionate debates, we share the same hopes. We want our students to get the education they want and deserve. We want our teachers to feel valued, and to get the support they need. We want to live in a prosperous, safe, and just community. In light of Tuesday’s announcement, we must ask ourselves how best to pursue these goals going forward.

Meet the Author

On Tuesday, around the time Commissioner Chester made his recommendation, a group of Holyoke High School students gathered on the steps of City Hall to protest the prospect of receivership. Talking with those kids, I was reminded of my own time at Holyoke High—all the hopes I had, all the help I received. I have a responsibility to help these kids succeed. As a city, we all share that same responsibility. After Tuesday’s announcement, these kids deserve to know that the city they call home can still give them the education they deserve. They need us—all of us—to deliver on that promise.

Alex Morse is the mayor of Holyoke.