Wednesday, 06 December 2017 13:41

Improvements Emerge at Holyoke's Dean Technical High School in MA

Written by Mike Plaisance, Mass Live
Collision repair class. Attendance and graduation rates have risen in a sign of improvements at Dean Technical High School in Holyoke, MA. Collision repair class. Attendance and graduation rates have risen in a sign of improvements at Dean Technical High School in Holyoke, MA. Credit: MIKE PLAISANCE / THE REPUBLICAN


The sign at Dean Technical High School facing Main Street read, "97 percent attendance keep coming."

The public display about the rise in attendance from last year's 87 percent, along with a drop in suspensions, upticks in the graduation rate and passing grades for all of the current seniors in all of their courses have educators in a Dean-boasting mode---kind of.

"I think it's important that we get the word out about how things are going so well at Dean Tech," Principal Jeffrey Peterson said.

First-quarter report cards showed that 95 percent of the school's 190 students passed all of their courses, and none of the current seniors failed any grades, he said.

The new administration of the city's vocational high school at 1045 Main St. ---this is Peterson's second year as principal---has emphasized a combination of enforcing rules and building relationships.

"And we came in and just changed the culture," Peterson said.

But he understands the climb continues. The graduation rate for the class of 2017 is still being calculated because of summer school and other factors. It probably will rise to the area of 50 percent, but that still means over 40 percent failed to graduate, he said.


"Which is still very low. We have a lot of work to do, but we are keeping students in school and we are giving kids opportunities that they haven't had in the past," he said.

Stephen K. Zrike, the state-appointed receiver in charge of managing the Holyoke public schools, said he likes what he sees at Dean under Peterson's administration. More students are staying in school and are learning more than in recent years, he said.

Such progress should be recognized, along with the reality that too many students are still not being helped by the system, he said.

"They really rebooted the culture and climate, which was the goal. By no means am I claiming victory. By no means," Zrike said.

Senior Dannysha Medina, 17, said she thinks the reboot is working. She wasn't just saying that because Peterson was present, she said.

"All the teachers and students, they get along more. They have better relationships," Medina said.

Dean's ascent comes as the public schools continue through the third year under state receivership. In April 2015, the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education took the extraordinary step of placing the schools in receivership because students' academic abilities---reading, writing and doing math---as reflected in test scores barely improved despite years of warnings.

Zrike, formerly Wakefield schools’ superintendent, has been the state-appointed receiver in charge of the public schools here with complete decision-making authority since July 6, 2015. 

Among the challenges: Three-quarters of the public schools' enrollment is made up of Latino students, many of whom come from households where English is usually the second language, and often a distant second. As recent years' graduation rates provided by Peterson show, the majority didn't graduate: 2012, 27.5 percent; 2013, 39.3 percent; 2014, 41.5 percent; 2015, 39.5 percent; and 2016, 40 percent.

But Peterson appears to have embraced the job. The former superintendent of Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School in Northampton told the Daily Hampshire Gazette in June 2016 that he was leaving that job and eager for this one.

"It is an opportunity to turn around a school that is struggling. It's a challenge that I couldn't turn down," Peterson said.

In late November, Peterson said, "I love it---I love these kids."

Politeness is emphasized at Dean and the focus is aimed at learning. Students are prohibited from using cell phones, wearing hats or hoods, or letting pants drop below the waist. Peterson asked a few guys wearing baseball caps in the machine shop to remove them, and they did.

If a teacher sees a kid on an iPhone or wearing a baseball cap, he or she will ask the student to put it away, but teachers don't engage the student beyond that. If the phone stays out or the hat stays on, the procedure is to inform the principal and then parents are called, he said.

Talking with students and building relationships are emphasized over punishment, he said.

Fights or rude and disrespectful behavior are reasons students get suspended from school, but suspensions are down.

"They're just not happening. In fact, we haven't had a fight in this school in 14 months," Peterson said.

The ban on using cell phones and dressing inappropriately is part of the pursuit of an atmosphere of professionalism. That, in turn, is part of Zrike's redesign of the high school experience here to focus those years on getting students into colleges and careers. 

"We stress that professional behavior is critical to success," Peterson said. "You can't walk around this school with your headphones on. You can't walk into a job with your pants below your waist."

The redesign has included removal of freshmen from Dean. All first-year students attend the city's other high school, Holyoke High School at 500 Beech St. The freshmen who take vocational courses are bussed to Dean a few times a week, he said.

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