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Another District Takeover Recommended by Mass. Commissioner

The Holyoke school district could become the second in the state of Massachusetts to be placed under state receivership.

Mitchell Chester, the commissioner of elementary and secondary education, recommended to the state board of education this week that the 5,600-student district of 11 schools be placed under state control.

The board will vote in April or May on whether to move forward with the commissioner's recommendation, which is opposed by the Massachusetts Teachers' Association, some parents, and local organizations.

In an interview Thursday, Chester said he felt a sense of "urgency" to act now to intervene in Holyoke and recommend the state receivership.

He cited data from the district as the bottom line for his decision: 1 in 3 students read at grade level; 1 in 4 did math at grade level; and 1 in 5 received an out-of-school suspension in the school year.

"It's the K-12 system in Massachusetts with the lowest graduation rate," Chester said. "Children are being harmed by the educational system in Holyoke, and I just can't stand by and watch that continue."

The longer students continue to attend Holyoke schools without significant changes being made, "the more they are being robbed of a future," he said.

If the state board of education acts on Chester's recommendation, Holyoke will follow Lawrence as the second district to be taken over by the state. (One of Holyoke's schools, Morgan Elementary School, is already in receivership.)

The state took over the Lawrence school system in 2011, and appointed Jeffrey Riley, a former Boston public schools administrator and principal, to run the schools.

Early results from Lawrence show an upward trajectory under the receivership. The percentage of students who are scoring proficient on state exams, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, has grown dramatically in math, moving from 28 percent to 41 percent. English/language arts scores have shown a smaller increase, from 41 percent to 44 percent. The number of Level 1 schools has also increased from two, when the receiver was appointed, to six.

WBUR reports that the commissioner's recommendation for receivership because of the "persistent and pervasive problems" in Holyoke elicited angry outbursts from parents and teachers in the room.      

Chester stressed that the recommendation was not about pointing fingers at the teachers.

"This is not about blaming teachers," Chester said, according to WBUR.

The Associated Press reported that the Massachusetts Teachers Association does not support the idea. The organization's president spoke against the receivership at the meeting, arguing that receivership would be "drastic and disruptive" and that the district needed early interventions, smaller class sizes, early childhood education, and additional resources.

"What we learn from Holyoke is that we still have a very long way to go to make sure that our children's lives are not determined by the color of their skin, their first language spoken, or the size of their parents' bank account," Barbara Madeloni, the president, is quoted as saying.

Chester said Thursday that some of the barriers to success that are currently cited in Holyoke are the same ones that were listed in Lawrence before the state takeover—the poverty of families, high number of students from families for whom English is not the first language, transient population, and high student attrition rates.

"We are showing in Lawrence that a student's background is not destiny in terms of the education that's possible, and we need to get to the same place with Holyoke," Chester said.

"We know that it can work," he said. "We know that this receivership can make a big difference for young people. We certainly will look at what we've learned in Lawrence as we design the Holyoke plan."

The final decision on whether to place Holyoke in receivership will be made by the state board of education, and a vote is likely to be in April or May.

Holyoke has been on Chester's radar for some time, and the district was well aware of that. Teachers and parents organized a campaign against the potential takeover when it became apparent that Chester would make that recommendation.

A report released by Chester's office in February noted progress in the district under superintendent Sergio Paez but also cited the "absence of meaningful teacher involvement and constructive participation by the Holyoke Teachers' Association."

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