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Zrike releases turnaround plan for Holyoke schools

Date: 10/9/2015

HOLYOKE – Mitchell Chester, commissioner of Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) hailed the turnaround plan for Holyoke schools as “an important milestone in the receivership of Holyoke.”

Chester made the remark on Oct. 1 when the plan was officially released.

“This is not designed to level the ground and start from scratch," Chester added. “Our goal for the plan is to build on its strengths.”

Chester said that his “best guess” is the receivership will take between five and six years, and the plan is for the first three years.

Receiver Dr. Stephen Zrike said the plan would go into effect for the next school year, as it will take a year for the teachers and principals to plan.

Zrike added that families must also participate in the plan.

“We need our families more than ever to partner with us,” he said. He added he would be making himself available to school staff and families in the coming weeks to answer questions.

Chester said elements of the plan include longer school days for kindergarten to eighth grade and more decisions made at the individual school and teacher level. He added the central school office would be redesigned as there are too many administrative staff for a district the size of Holyoke and the plan hopes to create “multiple pathways careers and opportunities for early college admittance.”

Zrike explained he has seen “inefficiencies in how we use out funds” and cited the central office. He said any money saved there would be going into the classrooms.

Mayor Alex Morse said the plan “yields great potential for the future of our school district.”

Chester noted the Holyoke plan does bear some similarities with the turnaround plan for Lawrence, the only other community under a school receivership in the Commonwealth. He explained secondary schools are not part of the Lawrence plan.

Zrike said he is seeking ways to incentivize the staff and will be speaking to the teachers’ union.

Chester did not commit to additional funding for the schools at this time.

Among the problems cited in the report were: “Inconsistent instructional quality: The quality of instruction across Holyoke varied school to school and classroom to classroom, with inconsistent implementation of standards- based, rigorous instructional tools and materials.

“Incomplete assessment system: The district did not have in place a complete system of formative assessments, and different schools were using different types of assessments, administered at inconsistent frequencies across the district.

“Challenges at the secondary level: Holyoke’s two high schools were not consistently preparing all students for college and careers.

“Absence of leadership opportunities for teachers and other staff: The district had not developed a variety of opportunities for teachers or other staff to serve in leadership roles that benefit individual schools and the district as a whole.

The plan’s strategy was outlined. “Throughout this plan, we will focus on the following critical action steps to implement Holyoke’s turnaround: Build on what is working and fix what is not working; Empower staff to make decisions while holding them accountable for results; Extend time to increase learning opportunities, for both students and staff; Provide students with individualized college and/or career plans and multiple pathways to reach their full potential; Invest partners’ knowledge and skills strategically, and; engage families as active partners, repairing relationships and building trust in the district.”

The plan listed five priorities: “Provide high quality instruction and student specific supports for all students, including students with disabilities and English language learners; establish focused practices for improving instruction; create a climate and culture that support students and engage families; develop leadership, shared responsibility, and professional collaboration; and organize the district for successful turnaround."

The plan noted, “Holyoke’s turnaround will include concentrated efforts to improve its lowest performing schools: Dean and Morgan.”    

Mayoral candidate Fran O’Connell reacted to the announcement with a written statement. Among his remarks, he said, “The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) today released the ‘Holyoke Public Schools Level 5 Turnaround Plan.’ The Turnaround Plan is detailed and lengthy. I will be performing a thorough review of the plan and I will be issuing a more comprehensive statement following my review.

“In the meantime, based upon my initial review of the plan, I offer the following comments:

“I still believe that the state’s historically unprecedented and forced takeover of the Holyoke Public School System is a travesty. If not for the lack of leadership shown by the current administration, I believe the takeover could have been avoided. After repeated warnings from DESE over the last four years and the mayor’s lack of attention to education, demonstrated by his poor school committee meeting attendance record, was all the evidence the state apparently needed to conclude that a takeover was justified.

“The current administration has allowed the state to takeover Holyoke’s schools before exhausting expanded state partnerships, such as the one the city of Springfield has with DESE.”

He added, “DESE’s track record in running two Holyoke Public Schools is not good. They have failed to make any progress at Dean Technical High and Morgan Elementary.

“I am disappointed that there is no additional funding proposed for implementation of the Turnaround Plan.”

He concluded, “I fully expect to play a leadership role in managing our schools. I will have a seat at the table. I will also continue to propose creative solutions and to push for implementation of the Enterprise High School that the receiver has publically acknowledged as ‘the kind of ideas that we want people to pitch. These are the kinds of discussions [that are] going to be happening within the school community.”

The entire plan can be read at