Getting Answers: Holyoke Public Schools’ literacy rates

Results of a new literacy assessment showed the majority of students at Holyoke Public Schools are struggling with reading.
Published: May. 22, 2022 at 11:50 PM EDT
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HOLYOKE, Mass. (WGGB/WSHM) - Results of a new literacy assessment showed the majority of students at Holyoke Public Schools are struggling with reading. Western Mass News is digging deeper into the data to find out what’s contributing to the low scores.

“Those numbers looked hideous. 50 percent was in the red!” said Gustavo Romero, Holyoke school committee member.

Romero was eight years old when his family moved from Puerto Rico to Holyoke. As a Spanish speaker, he struggled with reading.

“I came into third grade right here at Kelly School, full English classes, not knowing a lick of English!” he said.

Now his daughters are in the school district, and reading continues to be an issue. More than half of students in nearly every grade need “urgent intervention” when it comes to literacy, according to results from a new assessment program.

“One of my kids, she’s in reading range, she’s in the green but my other child, she’s in the yellow/orangey/red area,” said Romero.

Only in kindergarten are nearly half of students meeting or exceeding literacy benchmarks. (49 percent). In grades 1-10, only about 20 to 30 percent of students are reaching those benchmarks.

Most alarming, second graders, nearly 80 percent need intervention or urgent intervention.

“I lose sleep over second graders,” said Jacqueline Glasheen, executive director of school leadership of Holyoke Public Schools.

Glasheen said this was the result of second graders being in kindergarten when schools went remote in 2020, spending most of the first grade online, and starting second grade with masks on.

“Which is really hard to see the enunciation of words, to learn how to form sounds in your mouth,” she said.

She said the pandemic caused a lag in literacy nationwide, but Holyoke schools faces unique struggles. The district has been under state receivership since 2015 when the board of education deemed it “chronically underperforming.” The lack of local control continues to be debated, but the district says there are signs of progress.

Including the graduation rate rising from 62% (the lowest in the state) to 72%.

demographics play a role too.

A quarter of the district’s students are English learners. Nearly 75% of the English-learner population come from a background where Spanish is spoken at home.

“Reading is the foundation, right? If they can’t read and it’s really hard to access the math, science, social studies, and all the other curriculum,” Glasheen said.

Glasheen said there’s no magic wand when it comes to improving literacy, but decisions can be made around instructional design. Adding more special education and English learner teachers and training more teachers in the district’s new reading intervention program.

“Small group learning designed to what kids need and frequent checks for understanding where our kids are, where they’re growing, where are they not growing and how are we filling that gap,” said Glasheen.

Romero said learning starts in the home and parents, including himself, should be held accountable.

“The reason I blamed myself was I felt like I could’ve done more,” explained Romero.

School superintendent Anthony Soto refuted that in a recent school committee meeting.

“I will never ever, ever, ever say that it’s the parents’ fault. It’s actually a pet peeve of mine when I hear that. That’s just a way for us, as a school district to not hold ourselves accountable for the time we do have with our kids,” said Soto.

But Soto acknowledged there is room for improvement when it comes to family engagement.

“One thing that we have failed to do with our families is clearly articulate to them ‘here’s where your student’s at and here’s how you can help at home,’” he said.

Romero said leading by example can go a long way.

“Show them that you’re having fun reading, they’re going to pick up on it because they want to be like you, you are your kids’ role model and we should act more like it, you know?” said Romero.

“Making time for reading books, making time for talking about books, making time for asking questions about books,” said Glasheen.

If your student is struggling with reading, Glasheen said you should reach out to your school’s principal to see what summer learning opportunities there are.