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State-appointed Holyoke school superintendent recommends ending state control of the district

William J. Dean Technical High School in Holyoke, Wednesday,
Jerrey Roberts
/
Daily Hampshire Gazette / gazettenet.com
A high school in Holyoke, Massachusetts.

Holyoke Public School Superintendent Anthony Soto is recommending Massachusetts education officials "begin the transition to exit receivership in a careful and highly planned manner."

In a letter dated December 21, Soto wrote to Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) Commissioner Jeffrey Riley, that he is "proud of the collective work that Holyoke students, teachers, staff, and families have done together," and he is excited "to closely partner with the School Committee to ensure a highly successful transition to local control."

The letter reflects the first time in nine years the Holyoke School Committee, including Soto who was hired by the state as the "receiver," has spoken in unity about returning local control to the district.

But according to a DESE spokesperson, the letter is also a state-required response to the city's petition to end receivership sent in October by Mayor Joshua Garcia, who chairs the Holyoke School Committee.

DESE said Soto's response will be considered as part of the process initiated by the petition. The commissioner has four months from receipt of the petition to issue a response.

In the three-page letter Soto — who DESE hired six years into the district's receivership, in 2021 — wrote how chronic student underperformance brought on the state takeover and how the district then lacked many needed instructional and operational systems. The challenges included inconsistent instructional quality, Soto wrote, and an incomplete assessment system.

Many changes and improvements have been made for students and staff since receivership began in April 2015, Soto wrote.

As proud as he is of these gains, Soto acknowledged "there are still significant challenges that need to be remedied regardless of the governance structure of the district," including still faltering student achievement and significant staffing needs. Families need support around chronic absenteeism and student mental health, he said.

Soto said the state should ensure the transition to local control is done thoughtfully, in partnership with the Holyoke School Committee in order to limit disruption to the school community. Like with start of receivership, the end of it is bound "to create uncertainty," he wrote, and may result in significant change.

It's a setup for failure if receivership were to end "overnight," said School Committee Vice-Chair Mildred Lefebvre, who said the board is nonetheless eager to resume managing the district's budget and making local the many decisions that help students succeed.

"There should be a process," Lefebvre said, "and the process should be written out specifically how it's going to happen. It's either us or it could be Lawrence [or Southbridge] — somebody's going to come out of receivership first, and the outcome of that will be talked about for a very long time. "

After years of students' poor performance on statewide tests, Lawrence schools were put in state receivership in 2011 and Southbridge in 2016.

Even as she's had limited power in her home district, almost since she was first elected in 2014, Lefebvre will become president of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees in January. One of the ideas she said she'd like to foster: school committees should work together more.

"When we're elected to a board, we shouldn't just keep our focus on local, because other districts are going through similar things," Lefebvre said. "So we should be advocating [to the state] for resolutions that are going to improve the lives of [all] our students."

Lefebvre will be the group's first president of color, according to the association. She will remain on the Holyoke School Committee.

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."