Stephen Zrike admitted he had a limited base of knowledge about Holyoke before he arrived in July as the state-appointed receiver for the city’s beleaguered school system with the challenging assignment of orchestrating a turnaround.
Most of what he did know was gleaned from relatives of his wife, who grew up in the city, attended its schools, and achieved success in their careers. The basic messages that they conveyed consisted of enormous pride in their city — something people born and raised in the city are well-known for — as well as dismay over the current state of affairs and general uncertainty about what went wrong and how to fix the problems.
This enormous pride helps explain why Holyoke strongly resisted a state takeover of its schools. Only two other cities had suffered such a fate — Chelsea and Lawrence — and it’s certainly not something a community wants on its résumé, for a number of reasons.
But, as we wrote several months ago, this takeover will likely ultimately become a very positive development for this manufacturing center that is now, like many of the other so-called gateway cities, struggling to find a new identity.
That’s because it takes many factors coming together to restore a once-proud city to prominence, and an effective school system is at the very top of that list.
Other factors are important as well. These include a willingness to live and start a business in that community, getting a hold on crime and making residents feel safe, new job opportunities, and that intangible known as hope.
But before you can have most, if not all, of the above, you need quality schools that are graduating workforce-ready individuals.
Holyoke is making progress on many fronts. For example, it was recently included on Popular Mechanics’ list of the “14 Best Startup Cities in America,” an acknowledgement that it has, for lack of a better word, a solid infrastructure for new businesses, meaning available and affordable real estate, comparatively low taxes, and officials in City Hall who are cooperative.
The city is also building its economy through the arts, technology, and green business, with two of those realms coming together in the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center.
And some pride is being restored as well, with more business owners and homeowners looking Holyoke’s way, instead of the other way, or any other way.
But the city won’t achieve a full and effective recovery if its schools continue to lag, with some of the lowest, if not the lowest, rates for high-school graduation and third-grade reading proficiency in the Commonwealth.
Unless or until Holyoke’s schools improve those rates, it will be difficult to attract new families and new businesses, and therefore it will be an extreme challenge to script the kind of turnaround that Chelsea, Lowell, and other cities have achieved.
In his interview with BusinessWest, Zrike said orchestrating a turnaround of Holyoke’s schools will not happen quickly or easily. Achieving that feat that will require time, dedication, creativity, and the full power of a receiver to slice through bureaucracy and politics and therefore accelerate the process.
He says it will only happen through leadership — not just from his office, but in every one of Holyoke’s 11 school buildings. And he’s right about that.
We sincerely hope that leadership can be found, because a sound school system is one of the big pieces of the puzzle missing in Holyoke, and until improvement is achieved, the turnaround picture will not be complete.