Chronically underperforming school districts are often a hodgepodge of dysfunctional components. They require dramatic and decisive intervention in order to give their students a better shot at success. The Holyoke Public Schools have reached that crossroads. Late last month, State Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester recommended that the state take over the Holyoke schools and bring in outside help. The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education should grant Chester’s request to put the district into receivership — a proven path to improving struggling schools.
The Holyoke Public Schools have been lagging for more than a decade: The district was first declared to be underperforming in 2003. In the last 10 years, the state and federal government have given about $13.5 million in targeted assistance to the district. Today, one of its 11 schools remains under state receivership, and the district has the worst graduation rate in the state — 60.2 percent of students graduated in 2014, up from 49.5 in 2011 but still 25.9 percentage points below the state rate of 86.1. The annual dropout rate for Holyoke was 6.4 percent in 2014, or three times the state rate. Only 15 percent of third-grade students are reading at grade level.
Superintendent Sergio Paez, who took over the position less than two years ago, hasn’t been able to move the needle far enough. The district needs a full transformation that’s attainable only through receivership: That process would free up the school system from existing collective bargaining agreements that might be too constraining, and remove the local school committee from decision-making. The receiver, who reports directly to the commissioner and holds full accountability for improving performance, would be able to hire and fire teachers and staff, extend learning time, give more autonomy to school principals, and bring in external educational partners with a track record of success.
Only one other public school system is currently under state control, the Lawrence Public Schools — which represents perhaps the best argument for receivership. Since going into receivership, the Lawrence schools have maintained educational order and momentum that can serve as a model for the beleaguered Holyoke system. “My sense of urgency with Holyoke is heightened and reinforced by what we have accomplished in Lawrence,” says Chester.
Lawrence’s academic turnaround has been called nothing short of miraculous. The number of level 1 schools there have tripled since receivership went into effect in 2012; the dropout rate has decreased by 46 percent since 2011; and the graduation rate has gone from 52 percent in 2011 to 67 percent last year. And the similarities in the demographic and socioeconomic composition of both cities are not lost on anyone. Lawrence and Holyoke are two of the poorest communities in the state; Latino students represent 79 percent of enrollment in Holyoke, the third highest proportion in the state behind Lawrence and Chelsea. About a third of students are classified as English-language learners in both Holyoke and Lawrence school districts.
There is strong opposition from teachers and local officials in Holyoke to state meddling in the schools. The reality, though, is that the state has had its hand in the district for a long time, and expenditures prove it. Last school year, Holyoke spent $16,700 per pupil, and about 70 percent of that cost was paid by the state. Another concern in the community is the future of existing teachers, but it should be noted that the appointed receiver in Lawrence, Jeffrey Riley, avoided mass firings — he kept the vast majority of teachers.
A receiver can learn from past failed efforts. When the Holyoke school system was first designated as underperforming, the state brought in the organization America’s Choice, which was paid almost $5 million for a five-year, district-wide turnaround partnership that was criticized for failing to improve test scores. What happened? “Those partners tried to work with the existing structure and leadership of the school system,” argues Chester. “That punctuates the fact that short of restructuring this district from top to bottom, we have little chance of improving the future of students.” With receivership, there is a higher authority, with more sweeping powers, overseeing reform.
Whoever is appointed as receiver for the Holyoke schools — the commissioner may select an individual or non-profit organization — must have a track record of success with a similar population of students, and have a full understanding of the deep structural problems that have beleaguered the Holyoke schools for years. For example, cultural competency will be critical. Puerto Ricans make up more than 90 percent of Latinos in Holyoke, but remain largely underrepresented in local leadership. Another challenge in the district has been the large share of kids with disabilities, who make up about 24 percent of the student population, among the highest proportions in the state. An individual receiver from outside the existing administration would be the best choice to take on these challenges, ensuring accountability.
Like many other once-industrial cities in Massachusetts, Holyoke has remained largely insulated from the economic prosperity of the rest of the state. The city seems neglected, and wary of state intervention — how is an external agent supposed to succeed where local school leaders and officials have failed? But bold moves are needed. The apparent inevitability of receivership shouldn’t be met with apprehension: It represents the best chance Holyoke students have at academic success.