Class of 2014 Difference Makers

Michael Moriarty

Attorney and Director of Olde Holyoke Development Corp.

He’s Taken Early Literacy to the Forefront in the Paper City

Michael Moriarty

Michael Moriarty
Photo by Denise Smith

Michael Moriarty was searching for the right words to describe how he felt when he learned how Holyoke’s third-graders fared in the reading portion of the MCAS test last year, and found an analogy that works on a number of levels.

“I kind of know what a farmer feels like when his crops fail,” said Moriarty, who has been the main architect of ongoing initiatives to bring about improvement in early literacy across the city, as he talked about his reaction to the community going backward, not forward, when it comes to third-grade literacy rates.

Officially, Holyoke went from having 20% of its third graders reading at level (the state average is just over 60%) to 13%, said Moriarty, noting that, while most other communities across the Commonwealth went down in the tests taken last spring, Holyoke’s fall was far more precipitous, leaving ample reason for conjecture and concern.

But as with the farmer and his field, when it comes to Holyoke’s participation in the national Campaign for Grade Level Reading, or GLR, which Moriarty serves as community leader, he believes the difficult work of preparing the ground and sowing seeds has been done, and now it’s time to continue the even harder work needed to cultivate positive results.

Moriarty, a third-generation attorney and former School Committee member who recently became president of Olde Holyoke Development Corp., is firmly committed to achieving those positive results, and he believes the pieces are falling into place to reverse recent trends.

These pieces include personnel, infrastructure, and a set of strategic initiatives, he said. In that first category are administrators, including new Superintendent of Schools Sergio Paez, who led Worcester’s GLR initiatives, and the city’s new early literacy coordinator, Rosemary Hernandez, who assumed her post late last month.

Holyoke, the nation’s first planned industrial city

Michael Moriarty says there are many signs of life in Holyoke, the nation’s first planned industrial city, but true revitalization won’t happen unless chronically low literacy rates are reversed.

As for the infrastructure, he went on, it is modeled after Springfield’s highly touted Read for Success program, put in place by the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation. It has put early literacy on the front burner in the City Homes and kept it there, and, more importantly, it has improved third-grade literacy rates from 20% to 40% through aggressive programming and creation of bridges between the community and the school department to address the matter.

And the strategic initiatives? They center around the three critical elements in poor reading proficiency — chronic absenteeism, summer learning loss, and kindergarten school readiness.

“When you look at why children aren’t reading at grade level by the fourth grade, they tend to have come to school as kindergartners not well-prepared for school or learning, they tend to not have a lot going on in the summer, so they go backwards, and they tend to be the kids who are most absent, because obviously you’re not learning a whole lot if you’re not showing up,” said Moriarty, who clearly conveyed his passion for his work as he spoke to BusinessWest. “And very often, with the kids who aren’t reading proficiently, all three of those things turn out to be true.

“When that child, for whatever reason, is not prepared for school between the ages of birth to 5, it’s already predetermining the high likelihood that they’re not going to finish high school and they’re going to be economically hobbled for the rest of their life,” he went on, effectively stating the problem — and the consequences — that drive him to find solutions to this dilemma. “And Holyoke’s got the biggest problem with early literacy of any community in Massachusetts.”

And perhaps for that reason, those involved with this initiative set a probably (most would say ‘certainly’) unrealistic goal of 80% proficiency by this year. At his last school board meeting, Moriarty introduced a motion to slice that goal to 40%, which he believes is still “crazy ambitious.”

Still, he believes the community can and will move the needle.

There are a number of examples of community activism on Moriarty’s résumé. In addition to his work on the School Committee, he’s been involved with everything from the city’s Rotary Club to the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day Committee to the public television station WGBY. He’s also been a strong supporter of the arts and arts education, and in 2008, he and a group of community members formed Friends of Holyoke Public Schools Inc., which has funded the Summer Strings program, a free music camp for Holyoke public-school students.

But it is his work to bring the issue of early literacy into the forefront — and to be a prime mover in the effort to draft and execute a battle plan to address the problem — that puts him firmly in the category of Difference Maker.

“His advocacy has ensured that early literacy is a priority in the Holyoke public schools,” said Mayor Alex Morse, who has worked with Moriarty on many of the GLR initiatives. “The stars are starting to align, and I believe we’re going to see real progress.”

Early Chapters
Moriarty graduated from Holyoke High School in 1979, which means he can easily recall when this city, and especially its downtown, were still bustling.

“I’m one of those guys who can remember Thursday nights in downtown Holyoke,” he said with a broad smile, noting that this was payday at most of the remaining paper and textile mills and other businesses. “You would walk from one end of the street [High Street] to the other, and the sidewalks would be packed; it was not unlike being in Manhattan.”

He remembers a number of restaurants and clubs that were booming.

“There were so many places to go in downtown Holyoke at that time,” he said. “My dad’s law office was around the corner from Gleason’s Town House on Suffolk Street. I remember it was a high-end piano bar and quite a fancy place to go to.

“I got engaged at the Golden Lemon,” he went on, referring to the former restaurant on Appleton Street. “And there was a big family dinner spot called Kelly’s Lobster House, where I learned most everything I know about politics. When I was a kid, those were just three of many places to go; this was a thriving commercial center.”

But Moriarty’s timeline in the nation’s first planned industrial city means he’s also seen the climax of a slow, painful decline that actually began just after the start of the Great Depression.

By the 1970s, most all of the mills that had given the city its identity had closed or moved south. Meanwhile, in Moriarty’s junior year in high school, the Holyoke Mall opened its doors to considerable fanfare.

Those Thursday nights he recalled so fondly have continued — sort of — at the mall, he said, but downtown slowly started changing and retreating, and it has really never been the same.

Indeed, there are now vacant lots where the Golden Lemon and Kelly’s Lobster House, which burned down in the ’80s, once stood. And the city’s daily newspaper, the Transcript, which once operated on High Street and won Pulitzer prizes for its coverage of a city in decline and the issues that changed its fate, closed in 1995.

Many of the people Moriarty graduated from high school with — as well as a good number of those who came before and after — knew there were few opportunities for them in their hometown, so they left.

“I saw many of my friends’ older brothers and family members move away, because the mill jobs and the construction jobs they thought they were going to have here were out in Colorado and Florida,” he told BusinessWest. “It was a pattern I saw when I was still a kid.”

But Moriarty stayed.

Indeed, while he was tempted to stay in the Washington, D.C. area after graduating from Catholic University with a degree in Education, he ultimately decided to come back home. “I loved living in Holyoke, and I’ve never regretted coming back.”

And almost since the day he returned, he’s been involved with the community and, more recently, efforts to revive its schools. He first ran for the school board in 2000 and served 13 years.

“Education has always been a vocation for me, and I will always have some way of being engaged in that realm,” he said. “Being on the school board gave me an oversight position for a district that had a lot of issues. It was never boring, not even for a minute; there was some important work or initiative that had to be done, and I enjoyed all of it.”

He began his professional career teaching social studies at Peck Junior High School, but was laid off in 1989. With some encouragement from his wife, a lawyer, he attended Western New England University Law School and essentially carried on the family law practice started by his grandfather and continued by his father, focusing on business law, family law, and estate planning.

Roughly two decades later, in the early spring of 2013, he was recruited by the board of directors of Olde Holyoke Development Corp. to succeed long-time president Richard Courchesne, whom Moriarty credits with effectively carrying out — and broadening — the agency’s mission to develop real estate, manage low- to moderate-income housing, and provide financial assistance to Holyoke residents.

“I thought I’d written enough wills,” he joked when asked about his career course adjustment. “If you get a call every 20 years or so to change what you’re doing, say ‘yes’ — it’s good for you.”

He told BusinessWest that he’s enjoying his new challenge, as well as his Monday nights, which he got back after opting not to seek another term on the school board so he could focus on his new job and his early-literacy responsibilities.

Reading Between the Lines

Michael Moriarty

Michael Moriarty says the recent decline in literacy rates is discouraging, but he believes the pieces are in place to achieve real improvement.

Today, Moriarty sees many signs of life, and hope, in his hometown.

These include a growing arts community, new businesses in many of the old mills, the arrival of some young professionals, and a somewhat renewed sense of civic pride.

“A coffee shop just opened on High Street recently, and there’s a lot of buzz here,” he told BusinessWest. “There’s a sort of arts center that’s popped up on Race Street, and other things happening; you just hope that one of those things becomes the spark that’s going to make all the rest of what you want to see in a vibrant downtown come to life.”
But he acknowledges that there has historically been a rather large barrier to further improvement, additional economic development, and more complete revitalization — those intolerably low rates of third-grade reading proficiency.

It was this recognized need to change this equation that prompted him to take a lead role in early-literacy initiatives and act as Holyoke’s liaison with the national Campaign for Grade Level Reading.

In that capacity, he wrote and submitted a community-solutions action plan, one that borrows heavily from Read for Success, but is far more embedded with the school department, which should, in theory, make it easier to generate change and improvement.

Like similar programs, Holyoke’s initiative recognizes the importance of that third-grade MCAS test as a milestone in young people’s lives.

“When you transition from the third grade to the fourth grade, you’re also transitioning from that part of your life when you’re learning to read to where you’ve got to read to learn,” he noted. “And so, everyone who goes into the fourth grade not doing that is automatically behind the eight ball, in need of remediation, and not going to stay on grade level for at least part of that year while they get caught up — if they get caught up. And when almost nine out of 10 kids in a class need remediation, that tends to be the whole curriculum, which is not a good thing.”

So, in simple terms, Holyoke’s early-literacy program is designed to position young people so they don’t have to catch up.

This is much easier said than done, as evidenced by the results of last year’s third-grade MCAS reading test, which Moriarty said professionals describe as being “for real.”
“Children who are illiterate are not passing third-grade MCAS,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, if anything, it’s the other way around.

Moving forward, he is optimistic that the numbers will begin to improve and perhaps someday approach that very aggressive goal set years ago for 80% third-grade proficiency.
Part of that optimism is based on the hiring of Paez, who was assistant superintendent of English Language Learners (ELL) students in Worcester, and significantly improved the percentage of those students who read at grade level.

“He recognized the importance of this work there, and he was able to use most of the elements of a vibrant literacy campaign as we were going through the hiring process,” he said, “and as far as my vote was concerned, that went a long way toward his getting his job.

Overall, those involved in this endeavor need to focus on the future and continuous improvement, he added.

“We have to take all the lessons learned, use all of the best things we’ve put in place in terms of policies, data gathering, and classroom practices, and redouble our efforts to see results,” he told BusinessWest. “I think we have a community that recognizes the problem and is fully committed to doing a lot about it. I think we can look forward to seeing a real change in third-graders, hopefully in a really short period of time.”

Today, Moriarty still wears a number of hats with this initiative. For example, he represents Holyoke at meetings of the Mass. Reading Proficiency Learning Network, a group comprised of representatives from Boston, Holyoke, Pittsfield, Springfield, and Worcester who have committed to learning and sharing best practices to ensure that young people have access to high-quality early education and become proficient readers. Meanwhile, he also co-chairs a facet of the broad initiative called Attend for Literacy, which, as the names suggests, oversees a policy to identify children who are chronically absent from school and puts good practices in place to address that issue.

And occasionally, he reads to young people in the classroom. He does this to engage the students in reading and also show them that people are willing to get involved in their education.

He usually reads the same book, Animalia, by Graeme Base, which combines colorful artwork with alliteration to teach the alphabet.

“There will be a giant gorilla eating gorgeous green grapes in a glass house,” he said, adding that he enjoys these assignments because they give him perspective on the challenge and bring him even more into the process of crafting solutions.

The Last Word
Moriarty recently appeared before the school board, complete with several new members, including one occupying the at-large seat he relinquished last month, and informed it that Holyoke was to be recognized nationally as a “pacesetting community” by the Campaign for Grade Level Reading, an honor resulting in large part from his many efforts.

While obviously proud of this accomplishment, Moriarty made it abundantly clear that his goal is to one day break much better and far more important news — that Holyoke is making clear progress toward meeting those ambitious goals for reading proficiency.

He’s not sure when he’ll be able to do that, but he suspects that it won’t be long — if this community remains committed to early literacy and to all the hard work that is involved with moving Holyoke from the very bottom of the charts to somewhere near the top.

If that happens, then Moriarty will know what it feels like to be a farmer with a bumper crop.

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