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JOANNA WEISS

In Holyoke, worry about student program cuts

Word is that, outside of Washington, D.C., most people haven’t noticed sequestration. Airplanes are still taking off and landing, “Dancing With the Stars” is starting up, and most of our lives haven’t noticeably changed. This leaves the politicians free to go on resolving nothing while they try to score points on cable TV.

But in Holyoke, Lyn Horan is worried.

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Horan is an artist, a relative newcomer to Holyoke, one of the many people who — improbably, but passionately — sees this underdog Connecticut River Valley city, with its chronic crime and high dropout rates, as a soulful gem that’s ripe for renewal. She marvels at the glorious, decaying stock of buildings and the resilient population.

And while she sees looming budget cuts in her home life — her husband works for the US Fish and Wildlife Service — her larger concern is for the high school students whom she’s teaching about art and civic pride, through a project she calls Holyoke Surfaces.

The students are part of Upward Bound, a national program that helps prepare low-income, at-risk students for college through tutoring, enrichment, and an intensive summer residential program. By most measures, Upward Bound is a success: 98 percent of its Western Massachusetts students graduate from high school, and about 88 percent of them go on to college. Many are the first in their familes to do so. One of them, Alex Morse, went to Brown University, returned to Holyoke afterward, and was elected mayor last year, at 22.

This year, 10 students from the program signed up for Holyoke Surfaces. First, Horan gave them a presentation about abstract art and its real-world influences. Then she gave them disposable cameras and took them on a field trip downtown.

“The more you look, the more you see,” she told them. “That’s our mantra: that the city is worth a closer look, that there’s more to it than meets the eye.”

These kids might be feeling the federal budget squeeze in four or five different ways.

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The students visited the gorgeous, crumbling Victory Theatre, which housed vaudeville and silent movies in the 1920s. They took shots of the city’s old train station. They spent hours exploring, lying on floors on their bellies to get different points of view, noticing things that people might not have appreciated before.

Some of their photos are posted on their Facebook page, and they’re marvels of composition: rusted fireboxes, crumbling film on a dusty floor, detailed ironwork seen from unexpected angles. Their work will be on display — and for sale — at a local gallery next month.

That’s a big deal for a high school kid who might not otherwise have had the opportunity, who might now have an interest in art or architecture or urban planning. And the investment, from taxpayers, isn’t huge. For Holyoke Surfaces, Horan applied for a state grant and got $750, about half of what she asked for. The regional chapter of Upward Bound, meanwhile, won a $363,856 five-year grant from the US Department of Education last year, after a rigorous competition, to serve 85 students from six schools.

Gisele Litalien, the chapter’s director, says her budget has already been squeezed in recent years. With her latest grant, she has to serve the same number of students as before, with $800 less apiece. Now, she’s gotten word that, due to sequestration, she should prepare to shave another 5 percent. She’ll probably cut the annual banquet with parents. She might have to lop a week off the six-week summer program.

In the grand scheme of things, some might say this is no big loss — not to anyone but the students and the staff. But as Litalien points out, these kids might be feeling the federal budget squeeze in four or five different ways, because they take part in other social service programs. And if sequestration continues, some 40,000 students across the country could lose spots in Upward Bound and other college access programs.

Some might argue that, in tight times, those programs are luxuries, forms of government dependency that have to go. Others would argue that college prep is precisely the kind of investment that pays future dividends, leading people off public assistance.

Who’s making the decision? Nobody. To the folks in Washington, it’s an abstraction. Maybe they should take a trip to Holyoke. The more you look, the more you see.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.
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