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Holyoke looks ahead after state seizes control of schools

Temika Bennett and her three daughters outside a Holyoke preschool after the school day.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

HOLYOKE — Michael Navarro attends one of the worst-performing schools in the worst-performing district in the state, but the 15-year-old believes he is getting a good education.

“I’m doing really well,” said Navarro, a freshman at William J. Dean Technical High School. “Sometimes I slack here and there, but I get good grades.”

Navarro said he feels supported by teachers and believes his school is generally up to date, even if “sometimes technology messes up and we can’t use it.”

His experiences, and those described by other students and parents this week, stand in stark contrast to state assessments of Holyoke’s school system, which on Tuesday became the second district in the state placed in receivership by a vote of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

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A dozen years after Holyoke’s schools were designated as underperforming — and despite test scores that declined between 2011 and 2014 — residents described a system striving to educate children living with complex needs and problems: widespread poverty, many parents who speak only Spanish, and a student population that includes nearly a quarter with disabilities.

Gary Wright, the new dean of students at Dean Tech, said that in his first year here, he has seen a faculty focused on the problems identified by state officials, including high rates of suspensions and detention, and low rates of attendance and graduation.

“Those are all the things we’ve been worried about,” said Wright, 35. “Getting kids to school, supporting them when they make bad choices instead of suspending them, and then once they’re here, really designing interventions that work. . . . That’s how we’ve spent our year, and that’s hopefully what we’ll continue doing.”

Wright acknowledged that Holyoke’s test scores have been disappointing for more than a decade, but said Dean Tech has made improvements that aren’t yet showing up in testing.

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“We’re making a lot of progress,” he said. “It’s hard to see that progress because a lot of the data that people consider doesn’t come for months.”

By Thursday, some teachers and parents had begun signing an online petition declaring their intent to work with state officials “to provide and enhance the education of our city’s children.”

Others have used online forums and public events to voice frustration with the receivership and those they hold responsible.

Outside of a meeting between state Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester and Holyoke educators Friday, about two dozen protesters chanted and held signs critical of MCAS testing, Chester, and Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, said Jacqueline Reis, an education agency spokeswoman.

Mayor Alex Morse said he had a “great experience” in the Holyoke schools but knew that wasn’t true for all students.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

In Lawrence, the graduation rate has jumped from 52 percent to 67 percent, and math proficiency scores have gone up 13 percentage points since the education commissioner appointed a receiver in 2012, according to a report released this week by Watertown-based Education Resource Strategies.

Public education is just one problem dogging Holyoke, a city of 40,000 where many industrial jobs disappeared in the 1970s and 1980s and unemployment remains relatively high, with March figures 2.7 percentage points above the state average of 5 percent.

Shuttered factories dot Holyoke’s hilly landscape, and even on a fine spring day this week, its historic downtown seemed unusually quiet, its clean streets showing empty storefronts and sparse activity.

With the long-looming receivership issue settled, Holyoke residents expressed a mixture of wariness and cautious optimism, some saying they hope to see new resources and others saying they would prefer their children’s schools to stay as they are.

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As Holyoke resident Collin Provost picked up his daughter at the well-regarded Joseph Metcalf School on Wednesday, he said it was “disturbing” that only two members of the 11-member state education board said they had visited the city’s schools, and both were among the three who voted against receivership.

“I had a real problem with that,” he said.

Provost, 43, said state officials have not effectively communicated to parents what receivership will mean for their children’s education.

“What is their solution?” he said. “There’s been nothing from the state stating the identity of the problem and how they plan on correcting the problem.”

Gladys Lebron-Martinez, a Holyoke city councilor and former School Committee member, said she sees the same problem in Holyoke schools that she sees in the state board of education: too little Latino representation.

At a public forum in Holyoke on Monday, Lebron-Martinez addressed the board in Spanish to highlight the lack of communication between education officials and the community, which includes one of the largest Puerto Rican populations outside of the US territory.

Lebron-Martinez, 55, who was born in Puerto Rico and moved to Holyoke from Springfield in about 1980, said she was concerned about “the pointing of the fingers, about the parents being blamed about a lot of these issues.”

She said state officials paid too little attention to the insufficient number of local educators with the cultural competency to effectively teach Latinos.

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Gary Wright, dean of students William J. Dean Technical High School in Holyoke, said the district is trying to improve.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Lebron-Martinez and others said many who are satisfied with the status quo feel that way because their families’ needs are being met. Meanwhile, students learning English as a second language and those with learning disabilities are underserved, they said.

Some residents — and even two members of the board of education who voted against receivership — have said the district’s superintendent, Sergio Paez, who has been in the job less than two years, should be given more time.

Paez declined repeated interview requests over the past week. In a message posted on the school department’s website, Paez said his staff was “committed to the important work that needs to be done.”

“The amazing work that we initiated 20 months ago is not going to be compromised,” Paez said. “I’m committed to actively working during this transition, and I’m going to make sure all the initiatives and great work we have done so far is continued.”

The city’s mayor, a 26-year-old Holyoke native who attended its public schools from pre-school through graduation, said he had a “great experience” but knew that wasn’t true for all students.

“I had family support at home and other privileges that not every student can,” Morse said in his office Wednesday.

Morse said some have taken a defeatist attitude to the challenges facing them, doing a disservice to students who face learning challenges and most need their help.

“I saw low expectations at some points for students,” he said. “I think no matter what a student looks like, what language they speak, where they come from, we should expect the same from any student. Students internalize adults’ expectations of them.”

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Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.