HOLYOKE, MASS. – Sergio Paez was so convinced he could overhaul the underperforming schools of this old industrial city that, just months after becoming superintendent, he donated $10,000 to renovate the deteriorating municipal library.
A reading room in the library overlooking a beleaguered elementary school now bears his father’s name.
“We were supposed to do great things,” Paez said. “This was going to be the place where we fixed urban education.”
But just six months after the new library opened, he was out as superintendent. He had been on the job for less than two years.
Now Paez’s vision of transforming another school district, this time in Minneapolis, is at risk. Just days after Paez was named the superintendent in Minneapolis, allegations surfaced that staff in a Holyoke school abused special education students. The Minneapolis school board has halted contract negotiations while it investigates what Paez knew and whether he took any action.
Despite the allegations, many educators, politicians and community members in Holyoke are unwavering in their support for Paez.
They admire him for taking on one of the hardest jobs in the state and say Paez’s vision for the district, and the programs he began to implement, brought hope that the schools were on a path to change. There was a greater focus on reading, the arts, language immersion and partnerships with local businesses.
“There is a lot here,” said Peggy Boulais, a former Holyoke school committee member. “But it’s the schools that kill us.”
Holyoke, 90 miles west of Boston, thrived on paper manufacturing until the mid-20th century. Today, many former paper mills are abandoned and there is a large population of poor immigrant families, mainly from Puerto Rico.
The school district has just 5,500 students, but like in Minneapolis, the Holyoke schools struggle to keep wealthier, white families, many of whom enroll their children in neighboring school districts.
When Paez was hired in June 2013, the Holyoke schools already were extremely poor and underperforming. For more than a decade, the district’s graduation rate had been below 60 percent. The state was in charge of two of its 11 schools, and enrollment was declining.
Before Paez came on the job, he met with members of the chamber of commerce, state and local officials and community members. He wanted Holyoke schools “to be the choice of all families,” said Aaron Vega, Holyoke’s state representative and a former City Council member. “That’s something not said much by superintendents here.”
In his first full year on the job, Paez spent much of his time presenting the grim reality of Holyoke schools to families and the community. They were failing, and unless change happened fast, they would continue to fail.
“He forced us to look at the fact that a lot of our English language learners and special education students were not performing, and we were not meeting their needs,” said Gina Roy, Holyoke’s director of support services and a former principal.
His plan to turn the schools around included a language immersion program to attract families back, all-day prekindergarten, a credit recovery program for students who dropped out and a stricter evaluation system for teachers.
A state review of the district in January 2015 found that Paez was “successful in articulating his vision and has established positive working relationships with the school committee, mayor and community partners.” Teachers and administrators also “appeared to agree with and understand” his vision.
Not everyone supported Paez’s work. “An absence of meaningful teacher involvement” stymied the district’s initiatives, according to the state review.
The state cited the lack of formal collaboration among the reasons it voted to take over the district in April 2015. Yet many of Paez’s initiatives remain in Holyoke. The immersion program continues to expand and there are more prekindergarten classes in the elementary schools.
“When we support a guy who has been gone for seven months, it shows we really believe in what we were trying to do here,” Vega said to two Minneapolis school board members recently visiting Holyoke.
Allegations of abuse
Tracine Asberry and Josh Reimnitz, the two Minneapolis board members, spoke to at least a dozen educators, residents and local officials over six hours on their recent visit. Despite an overwhelming sense of support for Paez and his work, they sought more information about the situation at Peck School, where the alleged abuse of special education students occurred.
Massachusetts officials did not allow Holyoke staff or administrators to talk about the school or allegations of abuse.
Under Paez’s leadership, the district created a therapeutic intervention program at Peck School beginning in the 2013-2014 school year. The program served 86 students in fourth to sixth grade, according to Paez.
Within a few months, the district began to receive complaints about school staff locking students in closets or students who were hurt in the course of a physical restraint. Gus Morales, the teacher’s union president, said teachers raised concerns about staffing levels and support at the school.
The Massachusetts Department of Children and Families has conducted four investigations at the Peck School since the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year and found evidence of physical abuse involving the restraint of children. Paez said he was not involved in those investigations, which were handled by the district’s attorneys.
In one of those situations, Paez said, a staff member was suspended for 30 days. The other three led to more training.
Paez said he was directly aware of the issues twice, both this year: when parents showed him photos of bruises on a child’s arm, and when a former staff member sent a letter alleging improper use of restraints. Both times, Paez said, he took the allegations seriously and asked staff to investigate.
When the state assumed control of Holyoke schools in April, Paez stepped down as superintendent. He has since worked as a consultant on contract with the state.
The allegations surfaced again, two days after Paez was picked to lead Minneapolis schools, when the Disability Law Center, an advocacy organization set up by the federal government to investigate abuse of special needs populations, released the results of its own investigation. The report prompted outrage in Massachusetts, and the Hampden County district attorney launched a criminal investigation.
Paez said he was not negligent in his handling of the allegations. He said his staff investigated every complaint; doing so wasn’t the job of a superintendent. His job, he said, was to ensure the complaints were investigated fully.
Paez said he doesn’t believe he’ll be implicated in the criminal investigation and told the board members he’s willing to include a clause in his contract stipulating that Minneapolis could fire him if he is.
Still, some Minneapolis board members remain troubled by the allegations and Paez’s accounting of what he knew and did.
“I hear you saying that a superintendent may not know those kinds of details of what’s going on,” Asberry, who voted in favor of Paez, said after he explained the allegations. “But how will you move from a district that is smaller than Minneapolis to a district as large as Minneapolis and be aware of what’s going on?”
Reimnitz, who did not vote for Paez, told Paez he was leaving Holyoke with “a very positive view of all the great stuff you have done.”
“The lingering question in my mind is still Peck,” Reimnitz said. “It’ll be hard for the board to make a decision with that.”