Yesterday, I ran a column about my experience as a substitute teacher at Holyoke High School in Holyoke, MA. To be brief, I can only say that I have never encountered such a deplorable and destructive situation in any educational environment of any kind – deplorable because of the utter and complete chaos which engulfs every aspect of the school, destructive because generations of children are not being given the slightest opportunity to shape or grow their lives.
It was only after I posted the column that I learned the entire public school system in Holyoke has now been under state receivership for the last seven years. What this means is that back in 2015, the public schools in Holyoke were such a mess that the Massachusetts Department of Education had no choice but to take over running the system in an effort to end what had been the ‘chronic underperformance’ of Holyoke public schools.
What does the phrase ‘chronic underperformance’ mean?’ It means that too many students end their school years without knowing how to read or write.
According to most experts, what is referred to as ‘functional literacy,’ meaning the ability to read and write at what is necessary to hold even the most menial job, is equivalent to reading and writing at an 8th-grade level.
I didn’t experience a single moment yesterday at Holyoke High School where the atmosphere in any classroom was conducive to learning anything – reading, writing or anything else.
In one class a female student walked into the room, lay her head down on the desk, covered herself with her coat, and slept for the entire hour. She didn’t even wake up when the class session ended. And this was in the room where three paraprofessionals stood around talking to each other for the entire class period and none of them attempted to wake up this young girl, even when the other students were filing out of the room.
So, I walked over to this kid, tapped the desk until she woke up, and asked her whether she was getting any sleep at home.
To which she replied, “I always sleep here because I don’t like this class.” Note the word ‘always.’
Take a look at the school’s website: Holyoke High North Campus | Holyoke Public Schools. It says that the school provides “a frame of reference and field experience that connect academic work to the work of the world.”
It does? According to test scores, the school is currently graduating 81% of its students, of whom – ready? – only 27% can read and write at a tenth-grade level.
In other words, the learning experience of most of the kids who graduate from Holyoke High School is basically the same experience that the young girl is having who slept through the entire, hour-long algebra class.
And none of the paraprofessionals in the room even tried to wake her up when the class came to an end!
At one point during this particular class session, a woman appeared in the hallway and began chatting with one of the paraprofessionals standing at the entrance to the class. I walked over to these two ladies who continued conversing until the woman who had briefly appeared turned and continued walking down the hall.
I was told by the paraprofessional that the other woman was an assistant principal at the school, obviously a member of the school’s management team.
Did this woman bother to introduce herself to me and welcome me to the school on the first day of my job?
Of course not. Why bother introducing herself to me? After all, I was only the adult responsible for trying to teach something in that class.
But the point is, he administration which runs Holyoke High School isn’t interested in teaching anything at the school. When I asked a teacher why such a level of total chaos was being allowed to exist in the classrooms and the hallways, the answer was – you guess it – a shrug.
If a sizable number of students ambled into my classroom late for every class, what this tells me is that placing the school in receivership won’t change anything at all. If the State Department of Education wants to prevent Holyoke High School from unleashing a sizable number of kids every year who are totally unprepared to deal with the wider world, they have to come up with a plan that will prevent these kids from having any contact with the high school at all.
What happens to kids who attend Holyoke High School is what happens to kids who commit a serious crime and are sent to jail. What happens is they spend their jail time learning how to commit more crimes. At Holyoke High School the kids learn that showing up late for every class will have no practical effect on their ability to get through school.
Which means these kids will never learn what it means to show up for a job on time, never mind not being able to read or write. Which means they won’t get jobs even in an economy where the unemployment rate is less than 4 percent.
Holyoke High School should be shuttered and closed, the entire school administration fired, and all the students should be bussed to schools in adjacent school districts where there is actually a commitment to teach kids how to read and write.
For the first time in their entire lives, these Holyoke kids will find themselves surrounded by other kids who don’t wander around outside the classrooms after class sessions have begun.
And the peer pressure the kids from Holyoke will now experience will be exactly what they need in order to prepare themselves to grow and survive after their school years come to an end.