HOLYOKE – The phrase that dominated the press conference at which Dr. Stephen Zrike Jr. was introduced as receiver for the Holyoke schools was “it’s premature.”
Zrike was announced as Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Mitchell Chester’s choice on June 1, and while Zrike’s start date is July 6 little more can be said about his plans in the city at this point.
Chester said he is hoping to see a turnaround plan in September for the district.
“We had many individuals come forward who were interested in this assignment,” Chester said.
“Stephen Zrike's work in Boston and Chicago shows his dedication to urban students and his understanding of how to improve schools,” Chester said. “After the Holyoke Local Stakeholder Group draws up its recommendations, Stephen and I will work together on a district turnaround plan that builds on Holyoke's many assets in collaboration with educators, parents, business leaders and students.”
Zrike will be spending time in the city meeting with students and school personnel. He was meeting with Mayor Alex Morse that afternoon. Morse told Reminder Publications he had learned of the appointment through a courtesy call the previous evening from Chester.
Zrike said he had “no preconceived notions” about Holyoke, its schools or his plans. He added he would be “fully engaged and committed to be a champion for the children of Holyoke.”
When asked if teachers would be forced to re-apply for their jobs, Zrike said, “It is way to early to make any judgment. It is way to premature to speculate.”
Whether or not he and his family will move to Holyoke is also “premature.” He noted his wife’s extended family lives in Holyoke and has heard a lot about the community.
He called the positions “an incredibly exciting role” and described the potential of the Holyoke Schools as “unlimited.”
While he could offer no programs or strategies at this point, he did said that engaging the community is an important part of reversing the trends in the schools.
“No question it’s a challenge and it won’t be easy work,” he said.
“This is the kind of opportunity I wanted for my career,” Zrike added.
Zrike is the current superintendent of the Wakefield school district. He has served as chief of a network of elementary schools in the Chicago Public Schools from 2011 to 2013 where he led instructional improvement efforts across 26 K-8 schools with 18,000 students, 96 percent of whom were Latino, 92 percent of whom were from low-income families and 40 percent of whom were English language learners. Before that, he led turnaround efforts at two Boston public schools and had a leadership role in improving two middle schools and two high schools in that city.
Zrike did mention that under his tenure as superintendent that Wakefield established its first early childhood center, which tripled the enrollment on children in early childhood education in that community. Next year, he said Wakefield would add full-day tuition-free kindergarten. He did not say whether either approach would be used in Holyoke.
Growing up speaking Spanish, Zrike underscored his Latino roots by delivering his initial remarks in Spanish at the press conference. Zrike holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in history from Dartmouth College, a master’s degree in education from the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, and a doctorate in education, also from Harvard's Graduate School of Education.
He will report only to Chester and be paid $185,000 annually from the existing school budget.
School Committee member John Brunelle was at the press conference and said that while the School Committee no longer has legal responsibilities it will continue meeting and will work with Zrike. He said that many of the measures that have been recently enacted to improve the schools should have been started 12 years ago and he noted that former School Superintendent Sergio Paez urged action on many reforms.
While Zrike did not mention Paez’s involvement in the future, Jacqueline Reis, Media Relations coordinator for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said, “Dr. Paez is finishing out this school year (2014-15). What happens with his contract after that hasn’t been worked out yet.”