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Massachusetts Takes Over Troubled Holyoke School District

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

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted Tuesday to declare Holyoke a "chronically-underperforming" Level 5 district based on the recommendation of the Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education, Mitchell Chester.

Level 5 districts are placed in receivership under Massachusetts' Achievement Gap Act. The only other district in that category is Lawrence, which has been in receivership since 2011. 

In making his recommendation to the board last month, Chester said that Holyoke ranked among the worst in the state: 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 past year.

In an April 17 memo reiterating his recommendation for receivership, Chester wrote:

"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."

The four-year graduation rate in the district of 5,500 students was the state's lowest and the dropout rate was one of the state's highest, according to Chester.

English language arts proficiency rates were 18 to 43 percentage points lower than the state's, both districtwide and in each tested grade, Chester wrote. Between 2011 and 2014, with the exception of the 10th grade, no other grade level saw improvement in English language arts proficiency, he wrote.

Math results were similarly discouraging: only 28 percent of the district's students performed at grade level on state assessments.

In an interview last month, Chester said he was driven to act by a sense of urgency because the district had failed to make adequate progress. The students were "being harmed" by the education system in Holyoke, he said.

"I just can't stand by and watch that continue," he said.

Chester will serve as receiver until an individual or a group is appointed to lead the district, which is expected to happen by the summer, according to The Boston Globe and Chester's memo. Three board members voted against Chester's recommendation.

Lawrence, the other Massachusetts district in receivership, is now run by Jeffrey Riley, a former Boston schools administrator. Under Riley's leadership, the schools have shown improvement.

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. Graduation rates have also improved.

Last month Chester said he would use some of the lessons from Lawrence—the districts educate similar student populations—as he and the yet-to-be-named receiver craft the Holyoke turnaround plan. 

WBUR radio has a really good primer on some of the factors at play in Holyoke—including opposition to the state takeover that includes parents, teachers, and some students—as Chester sets about to transform the district. 

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