A Massachusetts state law passed in 1780 required that any town with 50 or more families must provide an elementary school and those with 150 or more families must provide a grammar school. In 1818, Holyoke, then known as Ireland Parish, had its own grammar school. By 1850, Holyoke had 7 schools.
Holyoke High School was created in 1852, with a focus on classical education plus scientific courses to prepare students for college. Classes in Greek, Latin and Chemistry were also offered. The first high school was located on High Street and later moved to the corner of Dwight and Race Streets.
Attendance in schools in the 1870s was irregular. Poverty of the school population put pressure on parents to put children to work rather than have them in school. Many immigrant parents did not understand the value of education themselves. Literacy requirements were hard for non-English speaking families. Free public night school was available for adults or minors whose employment made regular school impossible. However, there were over 1000 pupils in 29 schools throughout the city. Hundreds of pupils entered schools not knowing a word of English. They differed in education levels, maturity and home influences.
In 1875, one third of the school population was not in school each day, meaning those children were truant. Just one year later, in 1876, the School Board appointed a truant officer to regulate those who were not in school and take them back to school if found. Boys who made a game of evasion gave up the sport when they found themselves in the City Hall basement as punishment.
By 1910, most Holyoke children had no high school work at all. In view of increasing percentage of young people who were earning a living in Holyoke’s industries, more became interested in vocational education. In 1913, Holyoke Vocational School was started and began teaching courses for men in steam engineering and pattern making, and for women, cooking and sewing. Later on, classes included Cosmetology, Licensed Practical Nursing, Health Care Occupation, and Medical Assistant Training.
Holyoke Community College started as the city-sponsored Graduate School in 1946, providing night-school college classes to returning World War II veterans and other adults. In 1947, the Holyoke School Committee changed the name to Holyoke Junior College. The college flourished, and had grown to 690 full-time students. In 1964, the Junior College joined the state community college system and was renamed Holyoke Community College. When the College’s newly renovated building, the former High School, burned to the ground in 1968, Holyoke residents rallied to enable students to resume their studies in church basements, rooms above restaurants and other Holyoke locations. One year after the fire, the college was relocated to a temporary building on Beech and Sargeant Streets. Construction on the Sheehan farm property on Homestead Avenue commenced in 1971 and spring semester classes began in 1974. Holyoke Community College now serves 9,000 yearly, including over 1,000 students taking online courses.