Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School in Holyoke allowed to continue operations, move into former Pope Francis building in Chicopee

Date Published: 
February 12, 2019
Author: 
Michelle Williams
News Type: 

The future of a Western Massachusetts charter school hung in the balance Tuesday when state education officials considered if it should be allowed to continue operations.

The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted Tuesday to extend the probation of Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School in Holyoke.

The vote comes following the recommendation of Jeffrey Riley, the Massachusetts commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education, to extend the probation of the school with new conditions on the school’s charter. The school was placed on probation last year following high leadership turnover in the school, low academic performance, low enrollment and chronic absenteeism.

Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter school opened in Holyoke six years ago, seeking to provide a college-prep curriculum with a social justice focus to up to 500 students from six communities in Western Massachusetts.

Enrollment has been low. As of this fall, the school had 275 students. Student enrollment exceeded 300 students only two years. With enrollment at about half of the school’s capacity, education officials questioned if the school’s operating budget is sufficient. Charter schools in Massachusetts receive funding from a student’s home community for each child enrolled.

In addressing these concerns, Paulo Freire have proposed amending the school’s maximum enrollment and districts served. While it opened to serve students in Chicopee, Holyoke, Northampton, South Hadley, West Springfield and Westfield, school officials say they’ve received limited interest from families in Northampton and Westfield. They sought state approval to remove Northampton and Westfield from its charter region and add Springfield.

Riley recommended the state education board remove Northampton and Westfield from the school’s enrollment communities but deny the request to add Springfield due to low academic performance in the charter.

In addition to low enrollment, attendance is of concern.

“Attendance rates for grades 9-11 are far below statewide averages of approximately 95 percent and below rates for Holyoke Public Schools of approximately 92 percent for grades 9-12,” Riley said.

Two years ago, one in three students were chronically absent. During the 2017-2018 school year, more than half were.

“Chronically absent” students are those who miss 10 percent or more of the total number of school days. In a typical 180-day school year, this is the percentage of students who miss 18 or more days.

Founded with an intention of providing students a pathway to college through a curriculum steeped in social justice values and norms, state education officials have questioned student outcomes. He also recommended the board decrease the school’s maximum enrollment from 500 to 320 students.

On MCAS tests conducted in the spring, about 83 percent of sophomores at the school scored proficient or higher in English language arts, 43 percent in science and 42 percent in mathematics.

About 82 percent of sophomores in Holyoke Public Schools scored proficient or higher in English language arts, 49 percent in science and 44 percent in mathematics. Holyoke Public Schools were placed in receivership four years ago due to low student performance.

State education officials made a condition of the charter’s probation to improve student achievement. “The school must demonstrate that it is an academic success by providing evidence that the school has exhibited significant and sustained academic improvement in mathematics, English language arts, and science."

When Paulo Freire sought approval from the state to open in 2013, school officials shared plans of locating the school in downtown Holyoke.

Paulo Freire officials said they failed to find a suitable building downtown and moved to a site near the Holyoke Mall. In the last year, school officials have proposed moving out of Holyoke and into the former Pope Francis Catholic High School building on Springfield Street in Chicopee.

Executive Director Isabelina Rodriguez said in a petition to the state regarding the move that the school’s lease was up at the end of the 2018-2019 school year and increasing by about $100,000. Additionally, she said, “the landlord has informed us that he does not intend on renewing the lease with us."

She told state education officials Tuesday that the building becoming available was a “stroke of good fortune.” The building was recently renovated and features a new library, computer lab and art room which would be a “significant upgrade” compared to the current school building.

“We couldn’t have built a better facility from scratch,” Rodriguez said.

The request to move the school to Chicopee was approved Tuesday, allowing Paulo Freire officials to go forward with plans to move into the Pope Francis Catholic High School building for the 2019-2020 school year.

Rodriguez is the school’s third executive director since opening. In the school’s short span of operation, it has seen four principals and three different chairpersons on the school’s board of trustees. Of the founding board members, two remain.

“During its first five years of governance, the board demonstrated an inability to oversee and govern the school due to a lack of effective communication between the board and school leadership; an inability to obtain requested data to monitor academic success, finances, and enrollment; problems with adherence to the Open Meeting Law and the school’s bylaws; and an inability to properly monitor the fiscal health of the school,” Riley said of the charter.

Rhonda Soto, a founding board member of the school acknowledged “disfunction on the board" in past years but said the current board is working “diligently” to meet the state’s conditions of probation.

She also emphasized to state education officials the school’s founding mission of educating students and encouraging them to effective citizens.

“Our school is very unique,” Soto told the board. “It is critical that the community needs other high school options like ours.”

She spoke of the school’s dual enrollment program, which allows students to graduate with both a high school diploma and college credit.

Michael Moriarty, a Board of Elementary and Secondary Education member from Holyoke, thanked Soto for her forthrightness on school leadership concerns.

While Soto emphasized the school’s current readiness to meet state benchmarks, Moriarty was critical of the school’s lack of attendance at last month’s state board meeting when school progress was on the agenda.

Multiple Paulo Freire officials were scheduled to attend the January meeting but due to illness and loss of a family member, none were available and no other representatives were sent in their place.

“Is your bench that shallow?” Moriarty asked.

He added that “had the commissioner recommended the closure of the school, I would have voted for that too.”

The vote passed 10 in favor, one opposed. James Morton, the vice chair of the board, was the sole vote against extending the school’s probation.