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The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education

Update on Holyoke Public Schools

Members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education
Mitchell D. Chester, Ed.D., Commissioner
September 11, 2015


This memo provides an update to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on our work with Holyoke Public Schools. Dr. Stephen Zrike, who began fulltime as Receiver in Holyoke on July 6, will join us at the Board meeting on September 22. In this memo, I am reporting on:

  • Summer 2015 activities;
  • Convocation and the first day of school;
  • New programmatic opportunities for schools;
  • Pre-Kindergarten expansion;
  • Peck Full Service Community School partnerships;
  • Morgan School receivership; and,
  • Level 5 district turnaround plan update.

Summer 2015 activities

Community Conversations

During the summer, Dr. Zrike met with numerous parents, teachers, students, staff, and community members to learn more about what is working well in the district and what needs to improve. Dr. Zrike also held meetings with staff at each school to learn about their work and answer questions about the receivership.

Summer Professional Development for Staff

In early August, Holyoke Public Schools' principals, assistant principals, directors, and cabinet members participated in a three-day leadership retreat led by Dr. Zrike. The retreat provided time for shared reflection, learning, and planning for a successful school year. The work of these three days included time and activities to allow leaders to deepen their understanding of the unique talents, experiences, and leadership styles of the HPS team; to set goals for three high leverage practice areas (staff/student culture, instructional practice, and focus on academic outcomes) and to develop a corresponding action plan for the first four weeks of school to meet these goals.

New teachers to the district convened for orientation on August 25 and for three days of professional development. Returning teachers reported for professional development on August 27. In addition, Mass Mentoring offered a three-hour training to all school-based front- office staff members. The training focused on how front-office staff can promote a positive culture and environment in each school that reflects the values and aspirations they hold for the students and families. The training was part of the district-wide professional day on August 27.

Home Visits

In an effort to build trusting relationships between home and school, Dr. Zrike developed an "August Home Visiting Project" pilot program, providing approximately 100 families with home visits from teachers. The goal of the project was to provide opportunities for families and teachers to get to know one another and begin to build trust before the start of school. Parent surveys indicated that the visits were viewed positively and there is a desire for further home visits in the future. Teachers who participated also reported the experience as being "powerful" and "joyful." All families who received a home visit were given a new backpack and school supplies as part of the visit.

Beautification Projects

Every school in the district hosted Back-to-School Beautification Projects. The projects enlisted volunteers to help spruce up the school buildings and outdoor areas. Additionally, the beautification days provided a unique way for students, parents, teachers, and community members to connect with one another.

Convocation and the First Day of School

On Friday, August 28, Dr. Zrike gathered all Holyoke Public Schools staff members to kick off the start of school with a Convocation Ceremony. For the first time, paraprofessionals, cafeteria workers, custodians, and other support staff were invited to attend the ceremony along with teachers and administrators (traditionally the event had been open only to teachers). During the event, Dr. Zrike presented the values that will guide the work of the district this year. The values include the following:

  • "Scaling Up" the pockets of excellence
  • Building a critical mass of empowered educators
  • Being open to innovation and bold-thinking
  • Shifting to meet the needs of children and families- our clients

On Monday, August 31, Holyoke Public Schools welcomed back students for the first day of school. Dr. Zrike visited all eleven schools in the district to personally observe the first day of classes and welcome students.

New Opportunities for Schools

School Libraries

Through collaborative dialogue with the teacher and paraprofessional unions, the district has committed to staffing libraries at each school so that students have regular access to a wide variety of media. Previously, many schools did not have functioning libraries.

School Resource Officers

In response to constituent feedback, the district has decided to utilize full-time Holyoke Police Department school resource officers (SROs) 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. In the past, police details patrolled the high schools, but, unlike SROs, their role was not focused on working with school administrators and staff to proactively address student needs.

Pre-Kindergarten (Pre-K) Expansion

This year the Holyoke Public School District was able to expand the number of pre-K seats it offers. With support from the Department of Early Education and Care's (EEC) Preschool Expansion Grant (PEG), and in partnership with Head Start and Valley Opportunity Council, the district is offering 80 new pre-K seats for four-year-old children. This brings the total number of pre-K seats in the district to 215. Six elementary schools will host one or more pre-K classrooms in their buildings. All of the programs are free for qualifying families.

Peck Full Service Community School Partnerships

Therapeutic Intervention Program (TIP) Partnership

This year, the district is partnering with the Center School, a therapeutic, private special education school based in Holyoke, to provide direct leadership and support for the TIP program at the Peck Full Service Community School (Peck). In addition to having a campus in Holyoke, the Center School offers site-based special education services and supports to schools and districts throughout Massachusetts. Center School staff will be working fulltime at Peck with school leaders, teachers, and staff to ensure that the program is meeting the diverse needs of TIP students.

SchoolWorks Lead Partner

During conversations with leaders at Peck this summer, they identified additional supports needed for the school reach its improvement goals. To that end, Peck is partnering with SchoolWorks, a Massachusetts-based education consulting group, to provide support to the leadership team and teachers at Peck with a particular emphasis on improving instruction at the school. SchoolWorks was chosen as a partner for the school because of its extensive experience working in urban schools, both in Massachusetts and across the country. It has assembled a team of experienced educators, including former principals, to support the school. SchoolWorks has successfully consulted with hundreds of schools to help guide their improvement.

Morgan School Receivership

As of July 6, Dr. Zrike assumed the role of receiver of the Morgan Full Service Community School. Alyson Lingsch, principal, will continue to provide the school-based leadership for the 2015-2016 school year.

Level 5 District Turnaround Plan Update

Dr. Zrike and I are working with staff of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to develop the Holyoke Level 5 district turnaround plan. Throughout the summer, we received input on the plan from formal groups like the Local Stakeholder Group and through informal community-based conversations across the city. We expect to publish the turnaround plan before the Board's next regular meeting in October. I look forward to discussing the plan with the Board at your meeting on October 20.

Last Updated: September 16, 2015
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