A simple to-do list for Hempstead schools

Maribel Toure, attorney Fred Brewington and Ricky Cooke Maribel Touré, attorney Fred Brewington and Ricky Cooke at a news conference at Brewington's Hempstead office Wednesday, May 21, 2014. Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

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Joye Brown Newsday columnist Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006. She joined the newspaper in 1983 and has

Hats off to the Hempstead school district. On Tuesday, residents almost doubled previous numbers at the polls. And while results remained muddy Tuesday night, the board got one new member, Ricky A. Cooke Sr., who could be joined by another after an absentee ballot court challenge.

What happens now? Actually, some 350 residents who met over a series of weeks to talk about schools have some idea. They're looking for greater community oversight for the board, along with fiscal transparency.

For children, they're looking for better parent-school communications and smaller class sizes. And for Hempstead overall, they're looking for stronger community-school ties.

The list seems so simple, -- mundane even. But what makes it extraordinary is that it's rising up from Hempstead. From teachers, parents and community members; African-Americans, immigrants and the district's majority Latino student population.

It's a bottom-up, active, engaged coalition that Hempstead -- consistently, one of Long Island's lowest performing districts -- hasn't seen in decades. One that could -- and should -- seed clones in other segregated, low-performing districts.

The narrative in Hempstead is that school board president Betty Cross needed to be replaced. That's wrong. Because much of the decades-long systemic dysfunction in that and other majority-black-and-Hispanic school districts does not rise from one personality. Or bad boards.

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In fact, forget about viewing them as purely education-related entities at all.

Instead, they might be better understood as fiefdoms, with the ability to gift jobs and contracts -- potent power in neighborhoods lacking solid economic development and a strong tax base.

They act like political machines because, well, they're machines -- which, sadly and far too often, makes self-survival trump the fortunes of students they serve. In Hempstead, for decades, Cross has been Boss.

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Hempstead's abysmal school graduation rate would not be tolerated, excused -- or shielded from view by manipulation of grades -- by parents anywhere.

But in Hempstead, parents complained about being cut out of the process. And, in some cases, ignored or asked to leave board meetings.

And Hempstead -- along with other districts -- also had to grapple with the region's changing demographics. As schools became mostly Hispanic, it was inevitable that Latinos would push for power -- no matter how hard entrenched African-American leadership pushed back.

The conflict was compounded by the fact that, for decades in many segregated Long Island neighborhoods, districts were the only seats of power in town.

But change comes. And, in Hempstead, it started at the public library -- long before Tuesday's raucous election. Beginning in March, the Long Island Civic Engagement Table pulled together 16 local organizations -- from the local Classroom Teachers Association to The Corridor Counts, a political advocacy group -- to talk about schools.

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Cross went to the first session but left before the group drafted its first suggestions for pulling up Hempstead schools. No matter the final results, Hempstead's new coalition must stand up, and stay together, to get that work done.

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