State education chief backs receivership for Holyoke schools

Mitchell Chester.
Mitchell Chester.Charles Krupa/Associated Press/File 2008

Massachusetts Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester is proceeding with his recommendation that Holyoke public schools be put into state receivership, in advance of a formal vote that could come as early as Tuesday.

Already, Chester has begun meeting with potential receivers, he said in a memo to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education dated April 17 and posted on the education department’s website this week.

Receivership allows a state-appointed overseer — a person or nonprofit group given the powers of a school superintendent and school committee — to map out an ambitious plan to quickly improve school performance.

Despite efforts across more than a dozen years, Holyoke remains dogged by low test scores and high dropout rates, Chester said. Its highest-performing school is in the 21st percentile among its peers, while others rate in the bottom 10 percent statewide, he said.


“Student achievement and growth in the Holyoke public schools are among the lowest in the state overall and for student subgroups, including students with disabilities and English-language learners,” Chester said.

Barbara Madeloni, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said the group opposes receivership.

“School takeovers are profoundly undemocratic,” Madeloni said. “Public education and public schools are foundational to our democracy, and that means that they need to be organized and overseen by a democratic school committee.’’

School takeovers, Madeloni said, undermine that democratic ideal by handing schools over to a receiver chosen by a commissioner, neither of whom is elected.

Alan J. Ingram, a deputy education commissioner, said that if the board votes in favor of Chester’s recommendation, a receiver would oversee the schools in consultation with a stakeholder team that would include parents, teachers, and other community members.

He said that in Lawrence, the only district to be put into receivership by the state board of education using powers given the board through the 2010 Achievement Gap Act, the receiver has worked closely with the teachers union and community members, and a Holyoke receiver likely would do the same.


“This is not about creating a fiefdom or some hierarchy where someone is yelling and screaming and telling people what to do,” Ingram said.

Holyoke’s superintendent, Sergio Paez, has been on the job less than two years, and some feel he has not been given enough time to improve schools. Paez did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Chester believes that Holyoke cannot afford further delay, Ingram said.

“He has said repeatedly that the children of Holyoke can no longer wait for the adults in the system to get things together,” Ingram said.

Madeloni said Chester’s recommendation ignores evidence of progress from his own recent report.

“The report suggests that things are improving in Holyoke public schools, even by the commissioner’s measures, which I don’t think are the best measures,” she said.

The real issue in Holyoke is economic inequality, Madeloni said.

“What we know is test scores predict the socioeconomic status of the families that children are living with,” she said. “We have to stop pretending that economic and racial injustice are not a key part of the struggles that our schools are having.”

The board of education is set to hear from Holyoke officials, teachers, parents, and residents at a forum in the Western Mass. city on Monday. The board will continue its discussion on Tuesday and could vote that day or any time before May 19.


In Massachusetts, public schools are placed into state receivership when the board of education designates them “chronically underperforming,” with both low performance and no signs of substantial improvement over time.

Lawrence was designated for takeover in November 2011, amid year-to-year declines in performance among three quarters of its schools. The system has since undergone a dramatic turnaround, with threetimes as many of its schools ranked in the top tier in state assessments and a 15 percent increase in its graduation rate.

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com.