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Updates on Holyoke, Lawrence, and Southbridge Public Schools

Members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education
Mitchell D. Chester, Ed.D., Commissioner
June 17, 2016


At this month's meeting, I have asked the receivers of Lawrence Public Schools (LPS), Holyoke Public Schools (HPS), and Southbridge Public Schools (SPS), the three districts designated by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education as chronically underperforming, to provide updates on their respective progress to date. While the districts are different in size and complexity, the fundamental concerns that led to the declaration of receivership are the same: persistent underperformance, instability in the local leadership and governance, and a lack of effective strategies and interventions to meet the learning needs of students. In preparation for the meeting, I asked each of the receivers to reflect on the following prompts as they provide more details regarding their work in the districts thus far:

  1. What are your reflections on what you have learned so far?
  2. What are you most proud of to date?
  3. What work lies ahead most immediately?

Lawrence Public Schools

Jeffrey C. Riley has been receiver of the Lawrence Public Schools since his appointment in January 2012. I renewed Mr. Riley's initial three-year contract last year for another three years. He and I released the Lawrence turnaround plan in May 2012 and renewed it for another three years in May 2015. As the first receiver appointed under the Achievement Gap Act of 2010, Receiver Riley has been a very effective leader for the district and the state, using the tools provided under the act to improve education for students in the Lawrence Public Schools. I have been extremely pleased with his work leading and reforming the district while addressing the many demands that come with the role.

Among the topics to be discussed on June 28 will be the district's overall academic progress to date, the redirection of scarce resources, the formation of a results-oriented school-based autonomy model, and the focus on a culture of high standards and high expectations. In addition, Receiver Riley will provide an update on the implementation of the second year of the high school redesign plan and report on the Acceleration Academies and other innovative programs.

Last month, Receiver Riley announced the departure of two key members of his central office leadership team - Seth Racine, Deputy Superintendent, and Julie Swerdlow Albino, Chief Redesign Officer - as of June 30, 2016. They have been key leaders in LPS over their three-and-half-years in the district, where they helped to design and implement core components of the district's turnaround plan. While their leadership will be missed, this is also a natural transition point for the district. Most of the structural shifts and redesign initiatives are now embedded across LPS, and the district is entering a new phase of work focused on system-wide instructional improvement. A new organizational chart for the district is being finalized and will be released during the summer.

Holyoke Public Schools

Dr. Stephen Zrike has been the receiver of Holyoke Public Schools since July 6, 2015. The turnaround plan for the district was released on October 1, 2015. I have been impressed by Dr. Zrike's relentless focus on improving the education provided to students in Holyoke. He and his team have made impressive efforts to achieve the benchmarks outlined in the plan, including reviewing and strengthening district systems and programs.

Mickey Buhl will join Holyoke Public Schools as the Executive Director of Secondary Education and Pathways, beginning full-time on July 1, 2016. In this role, Mr. Buhl is charged with leading the middle and high school redesign efforts and partnering with the high school teams to promote strong academic achievement and positive school culture across both high schools. Mr. Buhl is currently the Founding Head of School for Phoenix Charter Academy Springfield, a charter high school serving 14-22 year olds who have been underserved by other educational options.

During his presentation at the June meeting, Dr. Zrike will present an update on the many improvements he and his team have initiated this year. A particularly promising development recently shared with the Holyoke community is the creation of two summer programs specifically designed for English language learners at the secondary level. The goal is to have 100% of the district's ELL students participate in a meaningful summer program that keeps accelerating their language and content learning. The two programs will provide students access to engaging and rewarding enrichment opportunities.

Southbridge Public Schools

Dr. Huizenga has been the receiver of the Southbridge Public Schools since May 2, 2016. I have been impressed by her sense of urgency to improve the educational experience for students in Southbridge. In a short amount of time, she has developed a strong grasp of the challenges and opportunities in the district. Dr. Huizenga and I plan to release the Southbridge Public Schools Turnaround Plan later this month. We look forward to discussing the plan during the June 28 Board meeting.

Dr. Huizenga has completed hiring her leadership team. I previously notified you of the appointment of Ms. Nicole Murphy, Director of Social Emotional Learning, and Mr. Jonathan Parent, Director of Information Systems and Technology. Dr. William Marinell has been appointed as Chief of Learning & Innovation, effective June 27, 2016. Dr. Marinell's most recent position was Director of Analytics for the Center for Education Policy Research (CEPR) at Harvard University. He will lead the district's Teaching and Learning Team, focusing on the overall improvement of learning outcomes for the district. Mr. Daniel Deedy has been named Director of Finance, Human Resources & Operations, effective July 1, 2016. Mr. Deedy is currently the School Business Administrator in Leominster, MA. Finally, Ms. Kelly Cooney has been selected as the Director of English Language Learners Services, a newly created position in the district. She begins her new role on July 1, 2016. She is currently the Director of the English Language Learner Program in the Fall River Public Schools.

Dr. Huizenga will also report on the various improvements she and her team have already established in Southbridge. I am particularly pleased about the expansion of Southbridge's summer learning programs. The district is gearing up to enroll over 450 students in summer programs designed for special education, English language development, and credit recovery. This represents double the number of students who previously participated in summer programming in Southbridge. Teachers working in the summer programs will participate in two full days of professional development focused on developing culturally and linguistically relevant lessons and increasing academic discourse. Senior Associate Commissioner Russell Johnston, Ventura Rodriguez, special assistant to the Commissioner, and the three district receivers will be at the Board meeting on June 28 to answer your questions.

Last Updated: June 27, 2016
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