Education Sections

Holyoke Schools’ Receiver Gets Down to Business

A New Test for a Turnaround Specialist

Stephen Zrike

Stephen Zrike says he’s still in the “listening phase” of the process of turning around Holyoke’s schools.

From the start of his career, Stephen Zrike has had a fascination with what would be called ‘urban education.’

He got a strong taste of this genre, for lack of a better term, while working in a number of positions in Boston, including principal, leadership coach, and ‘turnaround principal,’ and developed a real passion for it as chief of elementary schools in Chicago, where he led instructional-improvement efforts across 26 K-8 schools with 18,000 students, 92% of whom were from low-income families.

He was a finalist a few years ago for a job he coveted — superintendent of New Bedford’s school system — but didn’t prevail in that search, settling instead for the superintendent’s post in Wakefield, which is near home (the Boston area) but wouldn’t exactly be considered urban.

But this past spring, Zrike landed a different version of his dream job, and perhaps an even sterner challenge, when he was appointed receiver for the Holyoke Public Schools by Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester.

The appointment puts him in a place he wants to be, both literally — one of the Commonwealth’s so-called gateway cities (Boston and New Bedford are also in that group) — and figuratively, in a position to lead a turnaround.

“This was the kind of opportunity I was looking for,” he said. “My heart and passion has been in urban education, and from a young professional age I wanted to be a superintendent of a gateway city — these communities are very intriguing to me.”

Holyoke’s situation is uncommon. Only two other Massachusetts systems have been in receivership: Chelsea, which saw its schools turned over to Boston University and its School of Education in a landmark case, and Lawrence, now in its fourth year under receiver Jeff Riley. But, unlike those other two communities, officials in the Paper City did not exactly embrace this move.

In fact, they did quite the opposite, with most elected leaders, including Mayor Alex Morse, strongly opposing a state takeover of the system.

Overcoming this resistance is in many ways Zrike’s first challenge, and be believes he’s making considerable progress in achieving a buy-in.

“There was certainly skepticism coming in, but I believe there’s more optimism now — cautious optimism, to be sure,” he noted. “I knew coming in that it was important to build relationships with people who have a lot of pride in this city, care deeply about Holyoke, and have lived here for a long time.”

The next steps in the process will be much more difficult — creating an action plan for turning around the city’s schools, and then executing it. The first part of that assignment is well underway, he said, adding that the plan will be multi-faceted in its approach and address everything from high-school graduation rates to the role of preschool programs.

As for the latter, Zrike said there is no set timetable on the project, and he has made at least a three-year commitment to achieving the ultimate goal — returning control of Holyoke’s schools to the city.

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked at length about the means to that end, and how Zrike — and Holyoke — intend to pass their respective tests.

Study in Determination

Zrike told BusinessWest that his wife’s family has roots in Holyoke. In fact, her grandfather was one of the founders of the city’s fabled St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

He said much of what he knew about this planned industrial city and its schools was gleaned through conversations with those relatives.

“They conveyed a lot of pride in the community, and they had a lot of questions about the schools, which they had seen as being very successful for their children, now in their 40s,” he said, adding that his unstated job description is to restore that pride.

And, as mentioned earlier, he will bring to that assignment a diverse résumé dominated by experience in urban settings.

A graduate of Dartmouth University, where he majored in history, Zrike would later enroll in the Urban Superintendents Program within the Graduate School of Education at Harvard, earning both his master’s degree and doctorate there.

He focused on administration in urban settings after starting out as a fifth-grade teacher in the Andover public-school system, and later became principal of John D. Philbrook School in Boston.

From there, he was assigned the task of orchestrating a turnaround at one of the Hub’s largest elementary schools, William H. Ohrenberger School, and a year later was given the same challenge (this time in the official capacity of ‘turnaround principal’) at William Blackstone School.

Only eight months into that assignment, though, he left for the Windy City, a job as an assistant superintendent, and his broad role with its elementary schools. In that capacity, he said he worked with school leaders and their instructional leadership teams to assess the needs of their schools through the analysis of student outcomes, and then “develop goals, a targeted theory of action, and a school-improvement plan.”

In simplistic terms, he’ll be doing much the same thing for Holyoke’s two high schools, its middle school, a lone K-3 facility, seven K-8 schools, and an early-childhood center.

He arrived in July, and when he talked with BusinessWest as school was set to start this fall, he said he was very much still in what he called the “listening stage,” while working to soften the strong resistance to Holyoke’s receivership status.

“There’s a strong sense of urgency, but it’s also important to acknowledge the enthusiasm people feel about the schools and this city,” he said, adding that, in addition to that enthusiasm, he has encountered considerable frustration and a desire for progress.

In addition to his diverse background, Zrike brings to the job a fascination for the state’s gateway cities, mostly older manufacturing centers, and their school systems. In Andover, he gained an appreciation for the challenges in neighboring Lawrence, and his roles in Boston and Chicago offered myriad opportunities to learn and hone his skills.

Wakefield offered a different kind of experience, he said, adding that, when the state forced Holyoke into receivership early last year, he sought out the opportunity to lead the comeback efforts here.

School of Thought

Zrike noted that Holyoke’s schools didn’t arrive at this state — what’s known in education circles as ‘level 5,’ the lowest level of performance it shares with only Lawrence — overnight, and they won’t achieve turnaround status that quickly either.

Elaborating, he said there are many factors that contribute to a school system declining to level 5, ranging from ineffective use of resources to failure to meet the needs of some students.

“I think our population has shifted, and as a system we need to adapt to the needs of our students and our families,” he explained. “I think our families are really disconnected, in general, from the educational process, and if you talk to many of our parents, particularly low-income parents, they don’t have a lot of confidence and trust in the school system, and that doesn’t bode well in terms of performance outcomes.

“If they would rather send their kids to a different school … that’s not the level of investment and confidence that we would want in our schools,” he went on. “We need to do better with regard to supporting children who are developing English, and we have many students who come with social and emotional needs, and I think our system needs to continue to improve when it comes to meeting those needs. It’s hard for a child to learn if they don’t feel safe or comfortable, or if there are social or emotional challenges getting in the way of their learning.”

While focusing on students and their needs, Zrike went on, the system must also do a better job of working with teachers and staff to improve morale and involve them in the decisions regarding how the schools will be run.

“I think we’ve disempowered our educators,” he told BusinessWest, “and if you look at successful school systems, urban or suburban, educators have a voice in the change process, and I’m a big believer that morale is critically important in the success of any organization.

“And, unfortunately, I believe the teaching profession has been much maligned across the country and across the state,” he continued, “and we have to do a much better job of not only recruiting strong teachers, but retaining, supporting, and developing our quality people. We have some really quality educators in Holyoke, and we have to make sure we hang on to them.”

The process of returning the schools to the city begins with a strategic plan, Zrike noted, adding that such a plan is now being drafted with the input of a stakeholders group and should be ready by early October at the latest. He has also met with a host of groups and constituencies, including the School Committee, now acting in a purely advisory role, to gain input.

Overall, that plan is designed to enable the system to hit the quantitative targets necessary for the schools to be returned to city control. There are targets for everything from graduation rates (Holyoke currently has the lowest rate among gateway cities) and dropout rates, attendance, reading proficiency, and other student outcomes, he said, adding that the basic mission is to achieve continuous improvement.

One key measure is something called the student growth percentile, he said, adding this is a metric that compares how students do relative to peers that perform similarly the prior year across the state.

“Are you adding more growth than the average teacher or school?” That’s what this measures, he said, adding that Holyoke has obviously lagged in this realm in recent years.

Zrike noted that the strategic plan isn’t likely to identify any problems that Holyoke hasn’t been addressing for years. But it will provide a firm blueprint, and the receiver will have the requisite power to carry out that plan in a quicker, more effective manner.

“The receivership allows for greater acceleration of what can take a long time in districts,” he explained. “It allows for greater flexibility and leverages more resources. I do think the district had put some measures in place that were important to move the needle with regard to performance, but the receivership allows for an acceleration of that.”

Stern Test

When asked to pinpoint what will ultimately allow Holyoke to effectively send him off to his next challenge in urban education, Zrike said that, in many ways, it comes down to leadership — not in his office on Suffolk Street in the heart of the city’s downtown, necessarily, but in the city’s 11 school buildings.

“A big part of my theory of change involves strong leadership at the building level, the school level,” he told BusinessWest. “A district is only as strong as the teacher leaders and the principal leaders at the respective buildings. If you build that critical mass of people, then the system can sustain itself.”

Zrike’s unofficial job description is to build that critical mass. it will be a stern test, but one he believes he has the power — and, more importantly, the passion — to pass.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]