The public schools in Holyoke, Massachusetts opened this morning to begin the first full academic year under state receivership. While a district turnaround plan is not yet finished, there have already been some changes.
On the first day of school, Stephen Zrike, the person appointed to reform the long-troubled Holyoke schools, joined Principal Barry Bascom to greet students at the front door of Dean Vocational Technical High School. Later, Zrike observed classrooms at the K-8th grade McMahon school.
"This to me begins the core work once our students come back," he said. " I think the real excitement about the potential begins today."
Zrike was appointed receiver of the Holyoke schools on June 1st. He spent much of the summer listening to parents, teachers and students and heard what he described as a “disconnect” between the people of Holyoke and their schools.
" It is difficult to hear when families tell you they have lost trust and confidence in the school system, and clearly we want to be the school of choice parents look to give their kids the best education, not other options," said Zrike.
Later this year, Zrike will release a turnaround plan that will include ideas that have been shown to work in other parts of the country and recommendations from a local stakeholders group. As receiver Zrike has the combined authority of a school committee and school superintendent.
Some changes have already occurred. 105 new teachers were hired this summer –about a fifth of the total classroom staff – to replace people who were let go or chose to leave. Officials say such a turnover for an urban school system is not that unusual.
Libraries at each of the city’s 11 schools have been fully staffed and will have regular hours. Fulltime Holyoke Police Department school resource officers have been assigned to each of the city’s two high schools. They will add a level of security and also work with school staff to try to prevent disputes between students from escalating.
Volunteers participated in a beautification program to do some painting and landscaping at the schools. Zrike said from his tours of the schools it is obvious the district needs a new capital plan to go with the new academic plan. He said the schools need new windows, floors and lighting.
" They go a long way to ensure this is the kind of learning environment we want students to be part of," said Zrike.
There was vocal opposition last spring to the state takeover of the Holyoke schools, but Zrike appears to be getting the benefit of the doubt. Jocelyn Axelson, the mother of a third grader, said she is hopeful the Holyoke schools will get better.
" We'll wait and see. We'll see how it goes," she said Monday.
Jose Torres, a local pastor who has three grandchildren in the Holyoke schools, spoke briefly with Zrike Monday and concluded he is the right man for the job.
" He speaks both English and Spanish and I think he is going to reach more people in the community," said Torres.
Holyoke is just the second school system in Massachusetts placed in receivership. The Lawrence Public Schools are entering the fourth full academic year under state control. State education officials say test scores in Lawrence have dramatically improved.