HOLYOKE — Indifferent teachers, overcrowded classrooms, academic credits lost over minor infractions — these are among the reasons young mothers gave for dropping out or being expelled from schools as they ate pizza with Stephen Zrike at the Care Center one recent afternoon.
“Some teachers don’t really care. . . . They won’t push you to do better,” said Tania Cruz, 22, adding that she was expelled from William J. Dean Technical High School and now studies at the Care Center, an alternative education program for young mothers.
“Describe to me the type of teacher who would make you want to stay connected to school,” Zrike said.
“Just care,” one girl responded.
Parents and teachers said such exchanges are typical of Zrike’s interactions since his appointment June 1 to spearhead the reform of the troubled public school system, designated as underperforming a dozen years ago.
Despite widespread resistance to the state board of education’s April vote to place Holyoke schools in receivership, teachers and parents interviewed last week expressed cautious optimism about Zrike’s stewardship.
As receiver, Zrike replaces both the superintendent and the School Committee and has broad powers to make changes.
He has even won the respect of Gus Morales, president of the Holyoke Teachers Association, who said he opposes any state takeover of a school district but nonetheless considers Zrike a straight shooter.
“He’s asking for input, and he really wants it,” Morales said. “Versus asking for input and then telling everybody to shut up. . . . He’s got a different approach from our previous administration.”
Morales said Zrike has fired no more than a handful of tenured teachers, although he has also declined to renew contracts of dozens in their first three years of teaching who have not yet earned professional teacher status.
Other teachers have resigned or retired, Morales said, but he attributed that to the difficult “atmosphere of the district,” not to the receivership.
“They’re definitely not feeling good,” he said. “If they were feeling good, I wouldn’t have so many resignations.”
After a series of job fairs, Zrike has hired roughly 60 new teachers, according to Mayor Alex Morse, who attended a new teacher orientation with Zrike last week.
New faces will be among a number of obvious changes when schools open Monday.
Teachers and parents have beautified schools with fresh paint and new landscaping, and summer construction projects have created space for preschool expansion in some elementary schools — a project that was in the works before the receivership vote.
Libraries will be open and staffed at all of the city’s 11 schools. Previously, some had no librarians.
There will also be full-time Holyoke Police Department school resource officers at the city’s two high schools to help ensure safety and work alongside vice principals and counselors in mediating student conflicts before they escalate.
And about 100 families also received summer home visits from teachers to help prepare for the school year.
Zrike will announce more ambitious changes in late September or early October, when he releases his district turnaround plan, which he said will incorporate many recommendations made by a Local Stakeholder Group as part of the receivership process.
Morse, who served on the panel, said his goals include offering universal preschool, creating a way for high school students to earn college credits and associates’ degrees prior to graduation, and establishing a program to recruit Holyoke students to become educators.
The mayor said Zrike’s eagerness to listen and his ability to speak Spanish have helped win over some who opposed receivership for Holyoke, which includes one of the largest Puerto Rican populations outside of the US territory.
“I think he’s been getting in front of those families that haven’t been listened to in a long time,” said Morse, whose Holyoke High School diploma sits on a shelf above his degree from Brown University in his City Hall office.
Vanessa Fernandez, whose eldest son attends the Kelly Full-Service Community School, said she was among a group of about 10 parents who recently met with Zrike at a restaurant.
“It seems that he wants to help the community,” she said. “He was just really listening to people — what they wanted to change, or what they needed help in.”
Holyoke teachers also had praise for Zrike.
“I am feeling very positive, very hopeful. More so than I have the past few years,” said Maureen Dupont, a Holyoke teacher for three decades. “What resonated for me was him asking us what we thought about things.”
Zrike said his turnaround plan will incorporate ideas from Holyoke teachers and families, but he is also looking to innovative educational approaches from across the country, particularly those proven effective for children from low-income families and who are learning English, two challenges many Holyoke students face.
“As a profession, we don’t do a particularly good job of looking at best practices that work for some of the populations we serve,” he said.
Enacting the plan will take years.
Mitchell Chester, the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, pointed to Lawrence, the state’s only other district placed in receivership, which has seen dramatic improvements and was recently renewed for a second three-year term.
“These districts did not end up being in the shape they’re in overnight,” he said. “This has been more than a decade of low performance and dysfunction that we’ve seen in Holyoke, just like we’d seen in Lawrence. This turnaround is not going to take place in two or three year’s time.”