Spotlight On: Dr. Stephen Zrike

Our first Spotlight article of the year focuses on Dr. Stephen Zrike, the newly appointed receiver of the Holyoke Public Schools.


As school comes back into session, there is a new face at the helm of the Holyoke Public School District following the state takeover of the district. That man is Dr. Stephen Zrike Jr.

Zrike was born in Manhattan, moving around often as a child, even living in Brazil for a time. “I spoke fluent Portuguese back then, but unfortunately I lost it,” he explained. Eventually, he came back to the United States, living in Norfolk, Massachusetts. “I was raised in a Cuban household and Spanish was my first language,” said Zrike, his mother having immigrated to the U.S. from Cuba at the age of ten.

Following high school, Zrike went to Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, where he received his bachelor’s degree in history. Zrike remarked, “My parents gave me some good advice in telling me to, ‘Study what you love,’ and I loved history.” So, where did his interest in education come from? “I wasn’t good enough to play Division 1 sports [at Dartmouth], so I started coaching for Hanover youth sports as a way to stay active as a college student,” teaching the elementary and middle school students of Hanover basketball and soccer, sports Zrike enjoys to this day. He soon became enrolled in the elementary education program at the college in his last year there, and fell in love with the classroom environment, and the “idea that you could make an impact coming straight out of college,” something often not guaranteed as a new graduate.

From Hanover, Zrike went on to Boston, living in and around the city, teaching in the suburb of Andover, Mass. before receiving his graduate degrees in education from Harvard University. From there, Zrike has been a school administrator and adviser, principal, and superintendent for a variety of schools in the Chicago and Boston areas, and is now the receiver for Holyoke Public Schools.

Dr. Zrike sits down with Melanie Kos.
Dr. Zrike sits down with Melanie Kos.

With the turnaround plan for the district dropped on October 1, Zrike shared some of his ideas for Holyoke schools with The Herald. “I see myself as the leader of public schools, my responsibility is the students of Holyoke,” Zrike stated.

He hopes to use the funds Holyoke already has and will receive from the state through a variety of partnerships “as strategically as possible, to maximize impact on students.” “I don’t think we have enough technology and other tools available for teachers, and that affects the students. We need to look at how much money we use centrally that does not touch students, and change that. It’s something I take very seriously.” 

To be a successful student and subsequent member of society in this era, Zrike believes that “no matter where you go, digital literacy, the ability to collaborate, perseverance, and the ability to write and speak analytically, effectively, and with purpose” are key skills and traits for success, “no matter what you do”.

Zrike also explained his secondary work group, a collection of teachers and administrators from Holyoke as well as outside advisers to, “think bold about what high school can be”. “There are multiple tracks to success,” since success is such an abstract term. Many believe that high school is about passing and going on to college, but Zrike knows there are other options, and is looking to bring them more into the picture at schools. 

Zrike looks to make Holyoke students more marketable to the workforce, wanting to bring in more STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics) programs to the high schools, not necessarily in “old school” fields such as woodworking, but in coding, robotics, graphic design, and various forms of basic engineering.

“My general belief is that the way systems improve is through feedback,” and with the feedback from panels like this, Zrike hopes to improve the Holyoke school system, from teachers, to students, to other faculty and staff. He clarified that outside consultants will still be brought in, but only to give a new point of view. “I always believe there’s areas to improve, but on all levels [of faculty and staff], and that includes me. I want to build a culture where you get feedback on your performance, just as a student would, but you don’t take it as an attack, but as a way to grow. We’re changing the way we do evaluations, they way we interact with people, so that they see that it’s just common practice; to give feedback.”

Commenting on the frequent phrase “lifelong educator” being used to describe him, Zrike explained, “I don’t think I’ve used that phrase so much as the press. I have been in education my whole career, but I still have a lot to learn about teaching.”

His wife is a teacher as well, and he “frequently bounces ideas off of her.” Where he may lack experience, Zrike tries to fill in those holes with honest feedback from people who are in the schools everyday, and give teachers under his administration the right to grow in their career. “I believe that schools are the nucleus of change. Teachers should have more voice and agency in the direction the school takes. I’ve seen that that is what makes a teacher want to come to a school and stay there is those leadership opportunities and room to grow,” Zrike reflected. 

Dr. Zrike announces the release of the Turnaround Plan on October 1.

He has already worked to create those opportunities mentioning his plan to expand dual enrollment programs with local colleges, create alternative paths for high school dropouts, and bring new vocational opportunities for students at the high schools. All of these ideas are derived from listening to members of the Holyoke school community.

Finally, The Herald just had to ask if Dr. Zrike would send his children to the Holyoke Public School District. “I would, I would be strategic in to [what schools] and to what programs, I think there’s real excellence in the system, but I don’t think it’s everywhere,” he explained. “When I go into classrooms, I think all the time, ‘Is this the type of classroom I want for my daughter or my son?’… But I really do look at it as a father, and I have a high bar for what I want for my child… It shouldn’t matter where, what neighborhood you live in, but you should have an excellent experience in school. Every school should be a school of choice. That is my goal for Holyoke.”

After the tumultuous state takeover, Holyoke most certainly deserves a qualified and understanding receiver. The tortas lover, 15 year Patriots season ticket holder, and avid crime show fan Dr. Zrike seems to be just the person Holyoke needs.