“It is out of incredible concern about the future of the young people of Holyoke. While there are young people getting an outstanding education in Holyoke, overall the low results for our young people are persistent and they’re pervasive.”
—Mitchell Chester, Massachusetts Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education
It’s hard to tell people who believe they are making headway that their progress is neither fast enough nor good enough.
But when children’s futures are on the line, it is negligent for leaders to continue waiting and waiting for Holyoke to improve. All indicators show that student achievement is mostly stagnant and staff isn’t on board even with the agreed-upon plan to improve student outcomes.
Holyoke, We Need an Intervention
Despite the best efforts of some in the Holyoke school department, the Massachusetts Board of Education finds itself in a position where their duty to serve the public requires that they take an action that enrages many of the same people they’ve been appointed to serve.
Holyoke schools have been chronically underperforming for years. Their seemingly intractable struggles with student achievement and graduation rates have been a focus of the state board of education. Despite a multi-year plan to right the ship, it’s been decided that state intervention is needed.
Not surprisingly and quite understandably, most of the community is not happy with the board of education’s decision.
Over 400 residents, many of whom had been encouraged by staff and union leaders to attend, packed a public hearing the night before the vote. All accounts describe the room as overwhelmingly and predictably opposed to the possibility of the district moving into receivership.
The Problem With Holyoke
This isn’t new.
It’s very common that the ‘save-our-schools’ mantra overshadows the more serious need to save students.
Just a quick look at their missed targets—academic proficiency and growth and graduation rates—provides a glimpse into why this struggling community needs to drastically change course and enlist help from outside the district. The multi-year plan to work internally, despite the very best efforts of some, has been unsuccessful.
Truth be told, the children of Holyoke simply can’t wait.
According to the State’s District Review Report:
- The district did not meet its 2014 targets for math, English, and science. In English, as a district, their student outcomes are 37 percentage points lower than the state average of 69 percent and their math scores are 32 percentage points below the state average of 60.
- The district did not meet its graduation rate targets for its 4-year or 5-year cohorts. On the contrary, it missed the 4-year target by 20 points and the 5-year target by 27 points. The district is 26 points below the state rates for 4-year graduation rate and 30 points lower for the 5-year grad rate. Only about 4 in 10 students at its vocational high school graduate in four years.
Not the First Time in Massachusetts
This is the second time that the Massachusetts’ Board of Education has voted to place a struggling district into receivership. Lawrence went through the same process after a vote in 2011. Much like Holyoke, Lawrence suffered through years of dismal test scores and high dropout rates prior to the state’s decision to intervene. As Jeff Riley, Lawrence’s appointed receiver said:
“We’ve got kind of a different model, which is loose-tight administration,” Riley said. “If you’re doing really well, you get the freedom to fly and do your thing. If you’re not doing so well, we’re going to give you a ton of support, and try to get you up to that next level.”
So far the results are promising. In less than two years, test scores and graduation rates are improving.
As with most seemingly intractable problems, it is creative thinking that has made the difference. Instead of firing all the teachers and requiring they reapply for their jobs (which he could have done), he chose to cut a third of central office, replace close to half of the district’s principals, and take a very hard look at the bottom 10 percent of teachers.
Under Riley’s leadership, data is the driver.
After analyzing transcripts, they tracked down students who had dropped out despite only needing to take a few classes and, to use Riley’s words, “got them those classes and got them across the stage.”
For younger students in K-8, he has added 301 hours to the school year by extending the school day. He created Accelerated Academy, a program that brings a few thousand students in need of English intervention to school for 25 hours during February vacation—matching them up with teachers from near and far who’ve proven to be excellent at providing the needed supports.
‘Our Focus Has to Be on Kids’
According to Riley, it’s simple. “We’re trying to give our kids an education that’s comparable to your average suburban kid,” he says.
Not surprisingly, the teachers’ union is not pleased. While some teachers are positive and say that the school culture has dramatically improved in terms of student buy-in and parent engagement, union leadership and even some principals worry about teacher burnout.
One school principal said about 10 percent of her teachers left for other districts where fewer hours were required. And with a receiver running the district, it’s easy to understand why teachers may feel on edge about their jobs.
But the reality is that receivership means, practically speaking, that union rules don’t apply. Jeff Riley is essentially a “school czar” and has been tasked with making executive decisions that will turn the education tide for the children in Lawrence.
So, despite what he calls a “deep belief in teachers,” he is firm when he says, “our focus has to be on kids. We’re in receivership for a reason; it can’t be business as usual.”
He readily acknowledges that there is no magic bullet, but he is confident in what can be accomplished with the hard work and dedication of educators, administrators, parents and the larger community.
And his decisions are bearing fruit in terms of outcomes. But despite his admission that they’ve had a strong start, he is much more focused on the work that remains to be done.
It remains to be seen who will be named the receiver in Holyoke and how the district will work through this difficult transition. Still, the example of Lawrence should give students, parents and teachers hope that they too can be part of a successful turnaround.