The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education

Commissioner's Recommendation to Declare the Holyoke Public Schools a "Chronically Underperforming" (Level 5) District

Members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education
Mitchell D. Chester, Ed.D., Commissioner
April 17, 2015

At the meeting of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on March 24, 2015, I informed you that I will be asking the Board to declare the Holyoke Public Schools a "chronically underperforming" (Level 5) district, thus placing the school district into state receivership as authorized in Mass. Gen. Laws Chapter 69, s. 1K, as amended by the 2010 Act Relative to the Achievement Gap. This memorandum provides context for my recommendation as well as the steps that will follow should the Board vote to accept my recommendation.

Despite significant effort over the past dozen years by educators and students in the district, as well as efforts by the Commonwealth to support educational improvement, low academic performance and high dropout rates continue to characterize the Holyoke Public Schools. State law provides important autonomies and authorities to be used in these instances in which low student achievement is pervasive and persistent - and for the express purpose of securing the "rapid improvement of the academic achievement of students in the district."

On Monday evening, April 27, we will hear from Holyoke city and district officials and members of the public regarding the proposed receivership, as provided by the Board's regulations. ("School district and municipal officials, including the school committee, as well as the local teachers' union or association president or designee, a representative of the local parent organization, and members of the public, shall have an opportunity to be heard by the Board before final action by the Board to place the district in Level 5." 603 CMR 2.06(1)(f)) On Tuesday, April 28, the Board will continue its discussion of possible Level 5 status for the Holyoke Public Schools and may choose to vote on the matter at that time or at a later date.

Student Performance

By far the most concerning factor in my assessment of the district is persistently and pervasively low student performance. Student achievement and growth in the Holyoke Public Schools are among the lowest in the state overall and for student subgroups, including students with disabilities and English language learners. The highest performing school in the district is at the 21st percentile among schools in its grade span, and many are in the bottom 10 percent of schools statewide. From 2011 to 2014, student academic achievement and growth declined in many grades and subjects, contributing to a widening proficiency gap. In fall 2013, I designated Morgan Full Service Community School, one of the district's K-8 schools, chronically underperforming due to its low student performance over several years.

In addition to the disturbing achievement data, the district's on-time graduation rate is the lowest of any K-12 district in the state and the dropout rate is one of the highest. As well, Holyoke's out-of-school suspension/expulsion rate in the 2013-14 school year was very high: one-in-five students.

Alarming performance trends include:

In English Language Arts:

In Mathematics:

In Science:

Additional achievement and demographic data is available in Appendix B of the Holyoke District Review report Download Word Document.

State Partnership and Interventions

In February, I provided you with two documents - "Timeline: Holyoke Public Schools History as an Underperforming/Level 4 District" Download PDF Document  Download Word Document and "HPS Targeted Assistance Financial Support FY2005-FY2015" Download PDF Document  Download Word Document - that summarize the accountability and assistance efforts in which the Department engaged with the Holyoke Public Schools. (These documents are attached again for easy reference.) The timeline outlines the Department's efforts over the past twelve years to conduct a range of data collection and review activities to inform district planning intended to lead to significant improvement. The timeline and financial support documents also describe the resources and assistance the Department has provided to the Holyoke Public Schools to build district capacity to implement the planned school and district improvement strategies. At various junctures during these interventions, independent evaluators noted some improved practices and systems that held promise for better student outcomes. Despite these significant efforts and resources at the school, district, and state levels, ultimately the improvements did not have sufficient continuity, scale, and fidelity of implementation to deliver desired acceleration and continuous improvement in student performance.

Unfortunately, as we have seen in the past, the February 2015 District Review Report signals that underlying foundational challenges remain. Despite the development of new systems and leadership practices recognized in the report, significant improvement in student achievement continues to be at risk. For example, the report raises concerns about "insufficient participation of all educators and district leaders in advancing the district's core goals, priorities, and initiatives" that threatens the progress and success of the district's planned reforms (Holyoke District Review Report, p. 26).

Overview of Proposed Next Steps

If the Board votes to designate the Holyoke Public Schools as a "chronically underperforming" (Level 5) district, the Department is committed to making substantial improvements to the educational experience of every student in the district. In accordance with the Achievement Gap Act statute and regulations, I anticipate appointing a receiver to lead the district starting by the summer of 2015. The receiver will have the essential vision, experience, and commitment to transform the district and its schools into centers of educational excellence. The receiver will be responsible for working with me to develop the district's Turnaround Plan that will set out the priorities and strategies designed to "secure the rapid improvement of the academic achievement of students in the district." The authorities and flexibilities of a Level 5 district designation will enable us to develop a plan that implements ambitious and accelerated reforms.

The development of the plan will be informed by input from the district's Local Stakeholder Group (LSG), to be convened within 30 days of the district's Level 5 designation. As set forth in the statute, this group includes teachers, parents, community representatives, and local health, workforce, early education, and higher education representatives with knowledge about the district's needs and perspectives on its direction. Depending on the timing of the Level 5 designation, we anticipate that the LSG will provide its recommendations to me in July so as to inform the receiver's analysis and strategic planning. I expect the Turnaround Plan will be finalized by mid to late September 2015. While the statute on Level 5 districts does not provide for an appeal to the Board regarding the Turnaround Plan (in contrast to the statute on Level 5 schools), I will keep the Board informed at all stages of the process.

If the Board designates Holyoke as a Level 5 district, the Department is committed to achieving rapid and substantial improvement in student academic achievement. I will work with the receiver to reinvigorate the district and its schools through a relentless focus on strengthening and supporting teaching and learning. We have "proof of concept" in the progress we have seen in the Lawrence Public Schools under the receivership that the Board initiated in November 2011. As is true in Lawrence, the Holyoke school district faces challenges, including the fact that many students live in poverty and are English language learners or students with disabilities or both. As in Lawrence, these students need and deserve a strong educational system. They are capable of reaching high standards, and the current system is not resulting in students realizing their full capabilities. I know that we must and can attain better educational outcomes for the youth of Holyoke.

The following overview lists the anticipated next steps if the Board votes a designation of "chronic underperformance" for Holyoke in April or May. This timetable is subject to change:

Activities Under Way

I have been meeting with potential receiver candidates who bring demonstrated and successful experience to this endeavor. I am interviewing them, pursuing references, and will determine the best match for the assignment should the Board designate Holyoke as chronically underperforming.

A team of Department staff, led by Alan Ingram, Russell Johnston, and Lise Zeig, has been planning for Level 5 district intervention in light of our experiences in Lawrence. They are also considering potential partners to assist the receiver with the development and implementation of a Level 5 District Turnaround Plan.


Ultimately, our goal is to ensure that students educated in the Holyoke Public Schools are prepared for success at the next level (i.e., pre-school students for success in elementary school; elementary students for success in the middle grades; middle grade students for success in high school; and high school students for success in college and careers). While there are many dedicated educators and pockets of strong instruction in Holyoke, the district has failed to knit them together into a well functioning system that delivers a high-quality program of instruction to every student. As a result, too many Holyoke students are being deprived of a brighter future.

Holyoke students are as capable as students anywhere in the Commonwealth, but the district is falling well short of its responsibility to provide them with an effective education. The students cannot wait, and they will not benefit from business as usual. I believe only receivership will transform the school district into one in which excellence is the rule rather than the exception. The authorities and flexibilities of the Level 5 designation will allow us to initiate an ambitious and accelerated education reform agenda on behalf of all of Holyoke's students and their families.

Alan Ingram, Russell Johnston, Robert Curtin, and others will be available to answer questions at the Board meeting regarding this recommendation and next steps.


Download PDF Document  Download Word Document
Timeline: Holyoke Public Schools History as an Underperforming/Level 4 District Targeted Assistance Financial Support FY2005-FY2015
Download Word Document
DESE District Review Report
Download Word Document
Holyoke Public Schools History as an Underperforming/Level 4 District
Download PDF Document  Download Word Document
Holyoke Public Schools Targeted Assistance Financial Support FY2005-FY2015