In July of 2015 I was appointed by the Commissioner of Education in Massachusetts to lead a turnaround of the Holyoke Public School system, a position I held through June of this year. Having grown up in Massachusetts, I was familiar with Holyoke; it’s rich history as an industrial powerhouse, as well as it’s not so rich history as a city of stark ethnic and political divide. I knew coming in that the process of reforming a school system in the Commonwealth’s second poorest city would be an uphill battle, but I am grateful to have had a partner in Alex Morse working closely with me.
I feel compelled to speak out on Alex’s record as an advocate for the students and families of Holyoke given the recent critique about his investment in the children and families of Holyoke. In my five years in Holyoke, the Mayor and I had regular communication at a variety of schoolbased events and meetings about our turnaround efforts in the Holyoke Public Schools.
In the five years that the Mayor and I worked together, the graduation rate in Holyoke has increased more by 20% and the drop-out rate has fallen below 5%. The city’s English-Spanish dual language program has a waitlist, having grown from 40, to over 400 students, and access to Pre-K education has doubled to over 500 students. Over 45% of students at Holyoke High School are now enrolled in advanced coursework, including early college and dual enrollment. These statistics aren’t just a result of changes made in the classroom or to curricula, because as any experienced educator will tell you, the foundation for educational success starts at home and in the community. Alex Morse knew this as a 22-year old Mayor and graduate of Holyoke Public Schools, and he knows this now as a 31-year old candidate for Congress.
The most difficult moments I had in Holyoke were not spent working with unruly students, challenging educators or adversarial families, they were spent fighting a decades-old culture of an ‘us versus them’ mentality, espoused by some members of the community. The city’s demographics are skewed on both ends with a large youth population that is predominantly LatinX and a significantly older population that is predominantly white. Some are united by a nostalgia for days past and have been troubled seeing their home city’s industry and abundance impacted by decades of deindustrialization. Unfortunately, some of these same people believe that the good times of the past were a result of absence; absence of poverty, absence of addiction, and absence of people of color. They treat absence and division as a path to renewed prosperity, a dangerous proposition. Mayor Morse has never caved to this belief despite significant public pressure to do so.
At the heart of my support for Alex is the 9 years he has spent rejecting divisiveness in Holyoke, and instead, championing inclusion. He has been a tireless advocate for the students and families of Holyoke, a role I hope he is able to continue in Congress.
Superintendent of Schools, Salem, Mass.