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Wakefield superintendent picked as Holyoke schools’ administrator

Wakefield schools superintendent Stephen K. Zrike Jr. formerly was principal of the Blackstone Elementary School in Boston’s South End.
Wakefield schools superintendent Stephen K. Zrike Jr. formerly was principal of the Blackstone Elementary School in Boston’s South End.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff/File 2010

The state’s education commissioner has appointed a former Boston principal who now leads Wakefield’s schools to spearhead the reform of troubled Holyoke public schools, officials announced Monday.

Stephen K. Zrike Jr., who led three Boston public schools and later supervised a network of public elementary schools in Chicago, was chosen by Education Commissioner Mitchell D. Chester as receiver for the Holyoke system, giving Zrike broad authority to make widespread changes.

Chester said Monday that he considered “easily 30 people” interested in the position and narrowed the group to four candidates who were thoroughly vetted.

Chester cited Zrike’s success in improving urban schools where many students live in poverty and many are learning English, as is the case in Holyoke.

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Last month, Holyoke became the state’s second district placed in receivership, a dozen years after the former mill city’s schools were designated underperforming.

Chester in 2012 appointed another BPS veteran — Jeffrey C. Riley, who led a turnaround of the Edwards Middle School in Charlestown — as receiver for Lawrence public schools, the first district placed into receivership under the Achievement Gap Act of 2010.

Zrike, 39, will have the combined powers of a district superintendent and school committee and will be advised by appointed community stakeholders.

“It’s an opportunity to do some really important work with an underserved population, and that’s something that’s driven me my whole career,” Zrike said.

Chester, who became Holyoke’s interim receiver, will remain in that role until Zrike takes over on July 6. Zrike will be a state employee based in the Western Massachusetts city and will be paid $185,000 annually from the district’s budget, the education department said. He will report directly to Chester.

Zrike is a 17-year veteran educator with a doctorate from the Harvard Graduate School of Education who has been superintendent of Wakefield Public Schools since 2013.

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He became principal of the Philbrick Elementary School in Roslindale in 2004, the Ohrenberger School in West Roxbury in 2007, and briefly headed efforts to overhaul the South End’s William Blackstone Elementary School in 2010.

At the Blackstone, Zrike replaced many teachers with hand-picked colleagues from former jobs and engaged parents and students in a vigorous effort to improve performance and avert a state takeover.

Many were disappointed when Zrike left that job for a more prestigious position supervising 26 Chicago elementary schools. Turnaround efforts continued, and in 2013 officials removed the Blackstone’s underperforming designation.

Zrike said he was proud of his role in that turnaround, and that taking the Chicago job “was the right decision for my family at the time.” He pledged to remain in Holyoke until the work there is finished.

Former colleagues in Boston said Zrike’s abilities were a good fit for this position.

“He’s really good at finding people with great strengths . . . and getting the right people on the right problem, and trusting that they’re going to come up with a good solution,” said Lisa Lineweaver, the Blackstone’s director of accelerated improvement, who worked with Zrike on its turnaround team.


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