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Fall River and Holyoke schools may face takeover

By Akilah Johnson
Globe Staff / March 23, 2011

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MALDEN — Massachusetts Commissioner of Education Mitchell D. Chester issued this warning yesterday to the Holyoke and Fall River school systems: Improve significantly over the next year or face a takeover by the state.

“I’m not anxious to take over any district,’’ Chester said after yesterday’s meeting of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in Malden. “My preference is that the districts institute the changes that will result in better outcomes for students. But, where the district is not instituting those changes for lack of will, lack of a sense of urgency, or lack of capacity, then the state has the obligation to change the outcome for the students.’’

The two districts are among nine the state considers underperforming either because of weak administrative practices or poor academic performance. Chester said he is concerned about all these districts, which tend to lack the ability to prioritize and implement improvement efforts with a sense of urgency. Underperforming districts, he said, also tend to not monitor their results or to make midcourse adjustments. But Chester said he is particularly frustrated with the slow progress in Holyoke and Fall River, two districts that, in his eyes, “can and should be doing much better by the students they serve.’’

Holyoke Superintendent David Dupont and Fall River Superintendent Margo Mayo-Brown could not be reached by phone yesterday to respond to Chester’s warning.

The Holyoke school system is one of the lowest-performing districts in the state and one with the most persistently chronic shortcomings, state education officials said yesterday.

It was the first to be declared underperforming by the state seven years ago. That declaration meant that it was forced to submit a turnaround plan to the state.

The state stepped in to help by scrutinizing district practices, procedures, and student test scores and then closely monitoring progress and providng technical expertise and guidance where necessary.

And problems remain, despite some progress, such as the hiring of a new superintendent and receipt of nearly $3 million in a recent grant to remodel two schools.

Eva Mitchell, director of the state’s Center for District and School Accountability, outlined some of Holyoke’s problems for the board: An overall lack of accountability from the superintendent down to the lowest-level employee; inconsistent use of student achievement data; and poor teacher evaluation tools and professional development opportunities for staff.

“This review points to much less progress than we would like to see,’’ Deputy Commissioner Karla Baehr said. But Secretary of Education Paul Reville said the state must take some responsibility for Holyoke’s struggles, since it has been under state supervision for so long.

The Holyoke school district, in Western Massachusetts, has 5,896 students, about 77 percent of whom are Hispanic. It spent $104 million in the last school year. Last year, the graduation rate was about 52 percent, compared with 82 percent for the state as a whole.

About 100 miles east, the school system in the industrial city of Fall River educates 9,873 students, most of whom are white and come from low-income families.

About 20 percent of the population is special education students, and about 30 percent is still learning English or English is not a first language.

Fall River’s schools struggle the most with students for whom English is not their first language and with special education students, according to its state progress report issued yesterday.

“One of the critical needs remaining . . . is greater integration of systems that support differentiated needs of children of Fall River,’’ the report said.

“Special education services must be viewed by faculty and leadership as valuable services to improve teaching and learning, not simply compliance activities.’’

The state began monitoring Fall River in 2009, when the former superintendent resigned and the mayor asked for a review of the school system.

According to documents, what the state found was troubling: Unclear delineation between the roles of the superintendent and School Committee; weak teacher and staff evaluations, and a part-time chief financial officer to help oversee the district’s budget that resulted in grant mismanagement and late payments to vendors and some staff.

Chester said he needs commitments from each system’s school administrators, elected officials, teacher unions, and parents to help turn around these districts, where he hinted the needs of adults are superseding the best interests of children.

“I look for all parties to take responsibility,’’ he said, “and where the interest of the adults is taking a front seat and the benefits of the students are taking a back seat, those are the districts where I have the greatest concerns.’’

Akilah Johnson can be reached at ajohnson@globe.com.