Christine Langhoff sent the following reflections on the state takeover of the schools of Holyoke, Massachusetts. Jitu Brown’s remarks in the opening keynote at NPE Chicago identified the current reform movement as “colonialism.” When she heard Jitu speak, Christine was reminded of the state takeover of the public schools of Chelsea, Massachusetts in 1989.


Christine wrote:


Under the arrogant John Silber, Boston University took over the Chelsea Public schools for 20 years. The teachers’ contract was abrogated and many outside “experts” and researchers poured into the schools, many making careers due to their involvement. Money was also poured into the schools. But not much has changed and BU folded its tent and went away and the money dried up. From a study in 2010 by The Urban Initiative at UMass Dartmouth:


“The less positive news is that the challenges that the School District and City of Chelsea faced back in the 1980’s are still present, and in some instances have been exacerbated by state and regional economic conditions, as well as world-wide unrest and economic hardship for many families moving into the area. The challenges include: poverty, unreported immigrants, unemployment, crime, gangs, drugs, teen pregnancy, family mobility, low attendance rates, and the continuing issue of English as a second language.


The School District of Chelsea can never be accused of not continually looking for a solution to the challenges it faces. The reform efforts have been multiple and continual over the past two decades. Unfortunately they were not always systemic in nature and were driven by a ‘cure de jour’ and perhaps a myopic vision of the individual factors that needed to be addressed, rather than a broad-based plan that built upon succeeding successes and included the resources needed to fully implement the interventions.”


What has worked in Chelsea was not the expertise of the colonizers, but rather the daily hard work of community organizations to provide wrap around services children and families in empoverished cities to mediate the impact of poverty:


“Perhaps most importantly, there is a growing awareness that the school district doesn’t own the problem; that it is a community problem, and it will take the entire community’s resources and willpower to address the needs of its youth in a proactive and effective way. The growing community collaborations with outside agencies and non-profit organizations have already begun to show promise as a major reform strategy.”


In another comment, Christine added:


I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts that one of the first things the state does is eliminating the dual language program from Holyoke’s schools. 79% of kids in the schools are Latino (the majority of them Puerto Ricans, thus American citizens) and 48% are identified as having English as a second language. But those running the department of ed see bilingualism as a deficit. The Dever elementary school in Boston was taken over by the state earlier this school year. The very first thing the charter operator did was eliminate the successful dual language program.


The fact of a large Puerto Rican population in Holyoke matters. (At the Dever, too, many of the families are Puerto Rican.) As citizens, many Puerto Ricans transit between the island and the mainland due to family and employment factors (again, poverty – when there’s no work, you go back to live with abuelita). Children who move between school systems must be fluent in both languages to flourish academically, as public schools in Puerto Rico are conducted in Spanish. Being bilingual is a necessity and the argument of “if they want to live here, they need to learn English” holds no water when compared with the obligation of the state to provide a free, appropriate education to its citizens.