An Open Letter to Holyoke

July 13, 2015

The Holyoke Teachers Association appreciated the opportunity to participate in the Local Stakeholder Group process. The Stakeholder Group included three teachers – the HTA president and two long-term educators. As participants, we were able to explain to group members who are typically not in our schools what we as educators see every day.  We drew our recommendations and proposals from the work of an advisory group created by the HTA that reached out to the community and to educators across the district seeking input and ideas about the education Holyoke children deserve. 

While the HTA is pleased that its list of recommendations is included as an appendix to the official local stakeholder report, the children, parents, teachers, and community of Holyoke need more than an appendix of educational necessities attached to an official report only to be ignored. The official recommendations adopted by the Stakeholder Group as a whole are very short on specifics and are hampered by financial constraints imposed on our work by the facilitators, constraints that undermine the presumed purpose of the state’s takeover of our local school district.

While the state views the school turnaround process through the lens of what is affordable, the HTA focused on what is necessary to achieve student success.  That is what the Education Clause of the Massachusetts Constitution (and the Hancock and McDuffy cases) focuses on. The state’s education law also recognizes what the official report fails to recognize:  that rapid improvement in student achievement in a chronically underperforming school district requires an investment in the economic and health needs of our students and their parents. 

The HTA recommendations aim squarely at the real lives of our students and describe what is actually needed to improve student learning in an economically struggling urban district. The official stakeholder recommendations barely acknowledge the effects of poverty on the Holyoke student population, in and out of school. Ignoring these realities falls short of the statutory purpose of a state takeover and will only leave the Holyoke schools with constitutionally inadequate funding and programs to address their real educational, social and economic needs.

While we applaud the state-appointed receiver’s background in urban education, Stephen Zrike is not familiar with Holyoke, its unique history, its people, its schools and its streets. It is essential that he work with educators and parents as decisions are made regarding staffing issues, student needs, and the challenges facing our English Language Learners and special education students.  We look forward to addressing the many issues that are left out of the official stakeholder recommendations but which must be addressed in the turnaround plan. These include class size, programs for struggling students, currently unaddressed special education problems, and an enriching curriculum that includes art, field trips, and music.

Despite their absence from the Stakeholder Group’s recommendations, the turnaround plan must address the social service and health needs of Holyoke students and their families, improved child welfare services in Holyoke, and the steps needed to improve workforce development for students and their families. The Legislature recognized that the causes of a school district’s chronic underperformance are many and are rooted in these social and economic issues. That is why it directed the turnaround plan to address these matters based on the recommendations of the Local Stakeholder Group.

For more than 20 years, state education officials have been involved in Holyoke under the premise of “helping” the city achieve great public schools. We have seen nothing but poorly executed plans and lost opportunities. Last year, the state and its partners at the Morgan School and Dean Tech failed to make needed improvements there, and in some cases made matters worse.

In taking over an entire district, the state, acting through its Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, is directly responsible for meeting the constitutional obligation to achieve educational success for the children who are now directly under its charge. It cannot accomplish this only by measuring student test scores or abrogating bargaining agreements or forcing teachers out of their jobs. The state, acting through its education commissioner and the appointed receiver, must now step up, address the real issues in Holyoke, and provide the resources required to provide every Holyoke student with the education guaranteed by the Massachusetts Constitution.

In our recommendations, the HTA has identified essential, concrete items required for Holyoke students to succeed. The HTA cannot sit quietly and wait. As educators and citizens, we will hold the state and the receiver accountable for meeting the needs of our students and our community.

Respectfully,

Gus Morales
Briget Reilly
Shelley Whelihan

HTA Representatives on the Local Stakeholder Group