Photo: Michele McDonald for Strategies for Children
Photo: Michele McDonald for Strategies for Children

Holyoke is staging a comeback by building on its existing educational foundation to boost its children’s future success. The city has an ambitious plan for transforming its public school system that relies, in part, on high-quality early education.

Last March, Holyoke’s Mayor Alex Morse knew that his city’s school might go into state receivership. But he also knew Holyoke’s strengths. Writing in MassLive, he explained:

“That we face these problems is no reflection on our teachers and administrators who have worked so hard to improve our schools. On the contrary, the state’s report highlighted many areas where our schools have excelled despite poor systemic conditions. Our award-winning early literacy program has made a difference. Our graduation rate has increased. Our teen pregnancy rate has dropped precipitously. Superintendent Dr. Sergio Paez, Assistant Superintendent Dr. Hyry, and our school committee have laid a strong foundation for future success. Local partnerships have given our kids access to tutoring, after-school programs, and extracurricular activities.”

At the end of April, the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education did indeed announce that Holyoke Public Schools (HPS) was a Level 5, “chronically underperforming” district. This designation put the schools into receivership.

At the time, the state’s education commissioner, Mitchell Chester, said that Holyoke’s highest-performing school was in the 21st percentile among its peers, and others were in the bottom 10 percent statewide, the Boston Globe reported. The Globe added that Lawrence is the only other Massachusetts city that has seen its school system go into receivership.

According to a press release from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. “A Level 5 designation brings with it the expectation that sweeping changes need to be made…”

To lead this effort, Chester chose Stephen Zrike to serve as receiver. And Zrike, who was the Superintendent of the Wakefield Public Schools, saw a chance to make a difference.

“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,” he told the Boston Globe at the time.


Turnaround Plan

Last week, Chester and Zrike released a three-year turnaround plan for Holyoke’s schools. Its goal is to “promote rapid improvement, for the benefit of all Holyoke students.”

The plan’s five priority areas are to:

– provide high-quality instruction and support for all students, including English language learners and children with disabilities

– establish focused practices for improving instruction

– improve family engagement and create a climate that supports students

– develop leadership, shared responsibility, and professional collaboration, and

– organize the district for a successful turnaround

Many of the documents related to the receivership and turnaround plans for Holyoke — and for Lawrence — are posted here.


Early Education’s Role

Here at Strategies for Children, we are encouraged by many of the elements of Holyoke’s plan, especially its focus on pre-K as well as on the early elementary grades and on early literacy and language development. This strong birth-8 continuum promises to help increase children’s third grade reading proficiency, a critical benchmark for their future educational success.

As the plan explains, a specially appointed local stakeholder group came up with a detailed vision of how to improve pre-K. It says:

“All of Holyoke’s youngest children arrive in HPS early learning centers, Kindergarten and elementary schools with a high level of readiness – ready to play, ready to be a part of a group, ready to learn – because of their early and frequent engagement in early learning at home, early childhood education, and high quality pre-Kindergarten (pre-K) and Kindergarten programming.”

The stakeholder group’s recommendations in this area include:

– achieving universal, dual-language pre-K for all students

– advocating with other civic leaders for mandatory kindergarten

– giving pre-K and out-of-school partners access to student data to measure outcomes

– directing preschool efforts towards key readiness qualities and educational milestones

– creating an exit survey for pre-K families, and

– using clear screening criteria for kindergarten and explaining these criteria to partners and families

Following this lead, the turnaround plan points to the unmet pre-K needs:

“During the 2014–2015 school year, Holyoke’s pre-kindergarten program had 221 students enrolled. However, 445 students were enrolled in kindergarten, indicating that there may be additional students who could benefit from pre-kindergarten in the district.”

Program quality and literacy supports will also be essential. According to local kindergarten-readiness data highlighted in the plan, “68 percent of kindergarteners were unable to accurately identify a minimum of 13 letters and their sounds,” and “58 percent did not exhibit a minimum of five early literacy behaviors that indicate reading readiness.”

To address these needs, the plan calls for designing “a districtwide early education and elementary program that builds a solid foundation for students’ pre-kindergarten to grade 12 educational experiences.”

The plan also calls for expanding access by making “pre-kindergarten available for every four-year-old child in Holyoke by the end of the turnaround plan period. Additionally, the district will use the Holyoke Early Learning Initiative (HELI) partnerships and resources to support the expansion of pre-kindergarten and build on the successful family engagement strategies that community-based programs have implemented.”

Strategies for Children has worked closely with the HELI leadership team, and we are encouraged that the turnaround plan acknowledges HELI and builds on its work. Learn more about HELI here and here.

Other aspects of the plan include a better alignment of Pre-K and kindergarten programs. And kindergarten itself will be redesigned to engage children in “rich and developmentally appropriate learning that successfully prepares them for elementary grade level expectations.”

In addition: “Professional development will be provided for kindergarten teachers and staff to support the new curriculum and instructional strategies.”

The plan also calls for creating “a foundational skills block in kindergarten through grade 3” by providing these students with “targeted time to strengthen their foundational skills in core academic areas and academic language development.” The goal here is “to meet students’ individual learning needs” and strengthen their literacy skills so that they’ll be able to read at grade level by the third grade. The endgame is to prepare children for college and careers.

The plan sets several deadlines. A review of kindergarten programs should be complete by the end of the year. A review of preschool models and a plan for preschool expansion should be finished by June, 2016.

Another advantage for Holyoke is that it’s one of the five Massachusetts cities and town that’s using federal Preschool Expansion Grant funding. As we’ve blogged, these funds will pay for “78 new pre-K slots” in city elementary schools. “One hope is that welcoming pre-K aged children into school buildings will boost retention of these children as they move into the K-12 system.”

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Zrike calls the Holyoke turnaround plan “aggressive and attainable,” according to MassLive. A report from New England Public Radio notes that the plan will take time. And the Boston Globe points to the plans focus on particular struggling schools.

As this work gets underway, we look forward to seeing how it builds on Holyoke’s strengths and helps children achieve new levels of academic success.