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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
April 15, 2016


This memo updates the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on our work with the Holyoke Public Schools (HPS), including the district's progress in implementing the key actions and achieving the benchmarks outlined in the HPS Level 5 District Turnaround Plan.

District Turnaround Plan Update

Priority Area 1: Provide High-Quality Instruction and Student-Specific Supports for All Students Including Students with Disabilities and English Language Learners.

As stated in previous memos, school-based teams have been working on full-day operational plans that outline the essential actions each school will take during the 2016-2017 school year to provide high-quality core instruction and tiered supports to HPS students. Each school-based team submitted the first draft of their plan and scheduled individual meetings with Erin Linville, HPS Chief of Strategy and Turnaround, and the HPS Directors of Teaching and Learning to receive detailed feedback on their plan. School-based teams will incorporate the feedback into their next drafts, which are due in late April. Once the plans are complete, executive summaries of each school's full-day operational plan will be posted on the HPS website.

Priority Area 2: Establish Focused Practices for Improving Instruction.

As part of the redesign of the district's secondary school program, Holyoke Public Schools will launch a Freshman Academy in August 2016 at Holyoke High School that will serve all 9th grade HPS students. Students will study in smaller learning communities and participate in Explorations, a unique course of study which will provide them with the opportunity to investigate several career and college pathways, informing their choice for advanced study in grades 10-12. The Freshman Academy is designed to launch the high school experience so that graduates transition to college and careers with a high school diploma and a second credential including articulated college credits, Advanced Placement course credit, and /or career certificates.

In order to launch this new initiative in the fall, several key activities have been designed to support the students' transition into the Freshman Academy. About 60 8th and 9th grade students, parents and other family members, and staff from across all Holyoke schools brought ideas and recommendations to two Freshman Academy workshops that occurred over the past two weeks. The Holyoke High School guidance team is scheduling meetings with students at all HPS schools with 8th graders, as well as local charter and parochial schools, to share information about Holyoke High School and the Freshman Academy experience. Prospective 9th grade students and families are invited to an Open House at Holyoke High School on May 11, 2016 at 6 p.m. Students and families will engage in a school tour; receive information about academics, sports, and extra-curricular activities; and have the opportunity to talk with high school students. Finally, a Freshman Academy Orientation is being planned for August. All of these activities have been designed to ensure a smooth transition to high school for all incoming 9th grade students.

During the April vacation week, HPS will launch its first Acceleration Academy, an intensive learning experience for over 250 students in fourth, fifth and sixth grades. The goal of the academy is to accelerate students' math learning while providing a model of improved instruction and engagement strategies for HPS educators. HPS is partnering with Enchanted Circle Theatre to provide theatre enrichment programming centered on Nuyorican Poetry with a family engagement component. Students will be recognized throughout the week with raffles, prizes and other awards. Teachers will also be awarded prizes at a celebratory lunch on Friday, April 22.

To prepare for the launch of the academy, 23 teachers have been selected as Anne Cullen Prize for Teaching Excellence winners. Anne Cullen was a dedicated teacher of Holyoke Public School students for thirty years. The Anne Cullen Prize for Teaching Excellence recognizes outstanding teachers in mathematics and other disciplines who exemplify and embody the belief that all students can achieve success. The award recipients receive professional development opportunities and lead classes as part of the Holyoke Public Schools' Acceleration Academy. The teachers attended a day of professional development at UMass Amherst's College of Education on Saturday, April 2. In addition, the teachers participated in math workshops led by HPS math Instructional Leadership Specialists (ILSs), Professor Rebecca Woodland from UMass, and Professor Eileen Cyr from Springfield College.

Priority Area 3: Create a Climate and Culture that Support Students and Engage Families.

On Tuesday, April 5, 2016, Holyoke Public Schools held a conference for district staff at Dean Technical High School to explore the impact of trauma on learning. The Trauma Conference was designed to provide a foundational understanding of the impact of trauma on learning while engaging school staff across the district in the process of becoming a trauma-sensitive district. The event included a keynote presentation by Susan Cole, Executive Director of the Trauma and Learning Policy Institute. Ms. Cole's address began with the research base to frame the prevalence of trauma; she then explored the impact of trauma on student learning and concluded with ideas about how schools might organize to address this impact. Attendees then heard from a current and former HPS student about the experience of trauma in their lives and the role school played in mitigating and/or exacerbating those experiences. The conference ended with attendees choosing among five breakout sessions led by HPS educators, students, and local clinicians.

The Trauma and Learning Policy Institute will return to HPS on April 28, 2016 to train district and school leaders on the process of becoming a trauma-sensitive district. The teaching and learning team will also be designing a training sequence for teachers during the 2016-2017 school year as one option within the "Year of Learning" — a yearlong professional learning experience exploring the cultural and contextual conditions for learning in Holyoke.

Priority Area 4: Develop Leadership, Shared Responsibility and Professional Collaboration.

Holyoke Public Schools is committed to ensuring that its educators and other staff have the knowledge and skills needed to drive student learning, growth, and achievement. As discussed in last month's memo, one specific strategy launched in March was the district's "Holyoke University", which provides a menu of no-cost professional development opportunities for Holyoke Public School educators taught by their peers. Courses met once a week after-school for the month of March and were coordinated by Holyoke Public Schools' Director for the Office of Professional Learning. Approximately 50 HPS teachers and staff participated in these courses and feedback has been very positive. Participants have requested more choices and longer sessions next year. The Holyoke University course topics included:

  • Conversational Spanish for Educators
  • Common Core Writing: The art of color-coding responses to text
  • Digital Leadership for School Leaders
  • Effective Questioning and Engagement Strategies
  • Collaborative Practices for Inclusive Classrooms
  • Technology Integration for Educators 101
  • Trauma Informed Approach to Students/Restorative Justice

Priority Area 5: Organize the District for Successful Turnaround.

As part of the district's turnaround, HPS has committed to building a robust system to recruit, develop, and retain strong staff members and deploy them where they are most needed, motivating high-performing staff to remain in Holyoke and recruiting new talent to the district. Traditionally, HPS has done the bulk of its recruiting and hiring during the summer months. In order to recruit and retain the best talent, the district developed a recruitment and retention plan to dramatically accelerate its hiring timeline. Beginning in December 2015, the district took several key steps, including hiring a Recruitment Manager, improving its talent management system, identifying networking and partnership opportunities within the community, and developing a system to determine anticipated openings earlier. To date, the district has received 142 teacher applications and has screened 81 to move forward in the hiring process. HPS is hosting an Educator Recruitment Fair on April 27, 2016 at Holyoke High School. The Recruitment Manager plans to attend numerous job fairs throughout the region, including fairs at Lesley University, University of Hartford, Westfield State, UMass, and the Massachusetts Educational Recruiting Consortium (MERC). In addition, Holyoke is a part of Teach Western Mass, a partnership with the Springfield Empowerment Zone Partnership (SEZP) and the UP Education Network to build a deep and high-quality pool of teacher applicants in Western Massachusetts.

Earlier this month, the district announced the Holyoke Urban Teacher Pathways Program, a collaboration between Holyoke Public Schools and Mount Holyoke College (MHC). The purpose of this part-time, two-year program is to provide an avenue for current Holyoke Public Schools paraprofessionals and teachers with certification waivers to earn their Initial Massachusetts Teacher License (general education), an additional license in Moderate Disabilities, and a Master of Arts in Teaching degree. Costs are heavily discounted by MHC with additional support available.

Senior Associate Commissioner Russell Johnston and Ventura Rodriguez, special assistant to the Commissioner and my liaison to Holyoke, will be at the Board meeting on April 26 to answer your questions.

Last Updated: April 19, 2016
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