A Tough Test
After he led turn-around efforts in South Boston and Chicago—and served as superintendent of the Wakefield, Massachusetts, school system for two years—Stephen Zrike ’98 was chosen to take on an even bigger challenge. When Massachusetts officials decided to place Holyoke’s public schools under state control in 2015 after years of chronic underperformance, Zrike was charged with improving around an entire district. More than 77 percent of Holyoke’s families are economically disadvantaged, and English is the second language for nearly a quarter of its 5,500 students. “Massachusetts has some of the nation’s best schools, but we still have tremendous pockets of struggle,” says Zrike. “That’s motivating. That’s what gets me up in the morning.”
A former principal and administrator in Boston and Chicago with a doctorate from Harvard, Zrike has extended the school day, expanded programs that allow instruction in both English and Spanish, and merged high schools. This fall marked the opening of two middle schools (including one focused on science, technology, engineering, and math) and the launch of a new high school model that allows for more personalized learning plans, with opportunities for college-credit courses, internships, and job shadowing. He has also established alternate pathways to better serve high school students who are struggling. “We know one size does not fit all,” says Zrike.
Holyoke has made dramatic progress in other areas, too, with gains in early literacy and a dropout rate cut nearly in half. Zrike says teacher retention remains an issue, and rising district costs have made improvements more difficult. He’s inspired, though, by what he sees in classrooms every day. “Students are lighting up about what they’re learning and actively participating,” he says. “To me, that is a sign of success.”