Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Mayor Morse Optimistic about New School Year in Holyoke, Will Work to Implement Three New Programs

This week, to mark the beginning of the new school year, Mayor Alex Morse visited schools and talked to students and teachers about their hopes for the coming year.

“Ever since Dr. Zrike joined us in Holyoke, the response from teachers and parents has been overwhelmingly positive,” Mayor Morse said. “It’s a situation none of us wanted for the Holyoke schools, but there appears to be a new sense of hope and optimism for our district.”

The state Department of Education voted to place the Holyoke Public Schools under state receivership in April of this year. In the months following, the state appointed Dr. Stephen Zrike to be the receiver of the Holyoke Public Schools, and group of local parents, teachers, and public servants, including the mayor, comprised a Local Stakeholders Group (LSG) for the purpose of making recommendations to Dr. Zrike. Mayor Morse has consistently emphasized the importance of building upon what already works well in the public schools, and the recommendations of the LSG reflect that desire.

The Pathways to Success Program, established in 2013 with the support of the mayor, the school committee, and the former superintendent, allowed students who dropped out to recover the credits they had already earned and to earn their high school diploma by attending night classes and taking others online This program is an important reason that Holyoke’s graduation rate has increased by nearly 10% in the past four years.

In his first year in office, Mayor Morse identified third grade reading levels as a key indicator of future academic success, and made the improvement of third grade reading scores a top priority of his administration. Using a $100,000 grant from the Davis Foundation and the United Way, Mayor Morse established a new 3rd grade reading campaign and established a Community Literacy Coordinator position. This early literacy campaign recently won a national award from the Campaign for Grade Level Reading, as well as the 2014 Gateway Cities Innovation Award from MassInc. "With leadership from Mayor Alex Morse, civic leaders have built a citywide early literacy taskforce and developed a far-reaching early literacy blueprint," MassINC said in a press release announcing the award in 2014.

Another important priority of the Holyoke Public Schools has been the expansion of pre-school offerings. When Mayor Morse took office, there was one public pre-K option in the city at Metcalf School. Today, thanks to innovative partnerships with the Valley Opportunity Council and Headstart, there are now seven preschool programs. The pre-kindergarten classes will now be held at Metcalf, Donahue, Kelly, Lawrence, Morgan, Sullivan and E.N. White Schools.

“The foundation we’ve laid in the past four years has put our schools in a position to thrive,” Mayor Morse said. “Dr. Zrike has made it very clear that our new partnership with the state will serve to accelerate these efforts.”

Over the summer, Dr. Zrike worked with the Holyoke Teacher’s Association to find staffing for school libraries, a shift from previous years when the libraries had to be closed. Dr. Zrike also designed a summer reading program with incentives, sponsored school-based beautification projects, and facilitated a supply giveaway for teachers. Furthermore, the Mayor worked with Dr. Zrike and Police Chief Jim Neiswanger to restore a fulltime school resource officer at both Holyoke High School and Dean Tech, based on feedback received from school personnel.

“The most important feedback I’ve received has been from teachers, parents, and school committee members who feel that they have been respected and valued since Dr. Zrike has been on the ground,” Mayor Morse said. “I am happy to see so many folks moving forward with a sense of common purpose and a spirit of genuine collaboration.”

Mayor Morse is not alone in this sentiment.

“Most staff and parents were feeling uneasy about receivership,” said Erin Brunelle, member of the Holyoke School Committee. “But I feel as though there is now a renewed sense of pride, commitment, and mutual respect. You can sense the morale shift in the buildings—so much energy, and optimism, and the potential of positive change for our students.”

In addition to the recommendations of the LSG, Mayor Morse is working closely with Dr. Zrike to advocate and implement three new policy programs: an urban teacher academy for Holyoke; a pathway for paraprofessional development initiative; and a partnership with Holyoke Community College that enables high school students to earn college credit, perhaps even their Associates Degree, by the time they graduate.

The Holyoke Urban Teacher Academy would be a way of fostering greater understanding between teachers and the diverse cultural backgrounds of the students they serve, as well as an effective means of recruiting more teachers from the city. This is how it would work: aspiring students from Holyoke High School and Dean Technical High School who express an interest in teaching would become eligible for a tuition-free college education, provided they agree to become licensed teachers in the Holyoke Public Schools for at least five years after graduation. To achieve this, the Holyoke Public Schools would leverage partnerships with local colleges and universities, with Holyoke Community College as the first partner institution.

A paraprofessional development initiative would enable staff and teaching assistants to go on to earn their own degrees or teacher licenses. These people would then be able to one day lead their own classrooms with the advantage of being familiar with the district and the student body.

“An urban teacher academy would attract more teachers with even greater familiarity with our student body to return to the school system and contribute,” Mayor Morse said. “The paraprofessional development initiative would help us retain people who have already been working in the schools to contribute as certified teachers. Having people who are already familiar with our schools and our kids in the classroom would be a tremendous step forward for the district.”

On Thursday, Mayor Morse intends to continue visiting more schools alongside Dr. Zrike.

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