NYS takeover of Roosevelt schools failed, some say

Roosevelt High School AP teacher Yolette Wright keeps

Roosevelt High School AP teacher Yolette Wright keeps her students on top of their chemistry for an upcoming Advanced Placement test. (April 5, 2013) (Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams, Jr.)

New York State's historic takeover of Roosevelt schools has fallen short of its purpose in boosting student academic performance, raising questions over how Albany might better deal with struggling districts in the future, policymakers say.

The state is highly unlikely ever to attempt another direct takeover of a local district, those officials add.

Albany's intervention ends Monday, after 11 years and more than $300 million in extra state spending. The period -- marked by limited scholastic progress and memorable mistakes by state officials and their appointees -- was the first and only time the state ever managed a local school system.


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"I can tell you right off the bat that the state Education Department has no capabilities to run a school district," said Roger Tilles of Great Neck, who is Long Island's representative to the state Board of Regents. "We need other alternatives, if we're ever going to turn around other districts that are really not succeeding."

Regents set policy for the Education Department, which has run Roosevelt since state lawmakers approved the takeover in 2002. Tilles joined the board three years later.

By some measures, academic achievement has risen.

In the 2011-12 school year, for example, 87 percent of Roosevelt High School's graduates -- 159 students in all -- earned Regents diplomas. Only 12 percent, or 10 students, obtained such credentials in 2001-02. Regents diplomas signify completion of at least some college-prep coursework.

The end of state control was hailed as "Roosevelt Independence Day" and "a historic moment" by school board leaders speaking Saturday before a high school graduation crowd of more than 1,000. Parents and other residents, both there and at Friday's eighth-grade moving-up ceremony, voiced cautious optimism over the district's prospects under local management.

"This gives Roosevelt a chance to show its self-worth," said the Rev. Al Henry, pastor of the local End Time Ministries church, whose daughter, Alyshia, 14, will enter ninth grade in September. "I think we have a 75 percent chance to overcome our past failures."

 

How Roosevelt stacks up

In relative terms, Roosevelt remains far behind most other districts in student performance. Only 3.8 percent of 2011-12 graduates earned a Regents diploma with Advanced Designation, showing they were well-prepared for college. Nassau County's average was 52.4 percent.

The district's high school has languished on Albany's list of lowest-achieving schools throughout the takeover. The middle school and Centennial Avenue Elementary School also are listed as low performers.

"I don't think the state's intervention was a plus," said Dorothy Boxley, a 50-year Roosevelt resident and former education chairwoman for the local branch of the NAACP.

Roosevelt is a relatively small district, with about 2,800 students in a community of less than two square miles in the heart of Hempstead Town. The district's enrollment is 53 percent black and 39 percent Hispanic, and 56 percent of all students received subsidized lunches in the 2011-12 school year.

The district is essentially tied with the Hempstead system as Nassau County's poorest in terms of personal income, and historically has struggled to keep pace with wealthier systems nearby. The state's deep involvement in Roosevelt dates to 1976, when it approved the first in a series of financial bailouts.

Some analysts say that comparing Roosevelt against wealthier districts overlooks the intertwined effects of poverty and housing discrimination on student performance. More than half of its students live below or near the poverty line; 21 percent speak limited English.

"Nobody at the national, state or local levels wants to address the fact that there's no magic bullet for improving the school performance of children who live in poverty," said Alan Singer, a professor of secondary education at Hofstra University in Hempstead. "You cannot improve fundamentally their school performance without addressing the condition of their lives," Singer said.

What the state did

The 2002 takeover law gave state education commissioners unprecedented powers over Roosevelt and authorized state control for a minimum of nine years, with an optional two-year extension. Over time, commissioners ousted elected school board members, named replacements, exercised vetoes over local spending and appointed three separate superintendents.

One provision of the law allowed for gradual resumption of local school board elections, which resulted in frequent clashes between the state's appointees and elected trustees.

Albany pumped in extra money over the 11 years of intervention. Roosevelt received more than $210 million in state commitments for school reconstruction, and a total of $90 million in operating aid on top of what districts normally receive.

Any state takeover failure in Roosevelt has not been for lack of trying.

In recent years, for instance, high school teachers such as Teri McGrath, Yolette Wright and Christina Squillante have taught a growing number of Advanced Placement courses set at a college level. Many enrolled teens are the sons and daughters of immigrants from Honduras, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic and Haiti -- in some cases, the first in their families to speak fluent English.

Recently, 21 students gathered in Squillante's classroom to compare and contrast the foreign policies of two U.S. presidents -- Theodore Roosevelt, who favored an assertive approach, and Woodrow Wilson, who initially was more reticent.

Most of the teens seemed absorbed in the discussion of early 20th-century issues, some of which reverberate to the present day.

"Why might Wilson be against investing U.S. money overseas?" asked Squillante, 30, who has worked in Roosevelt six years.

"It might drag us in?" a 16-year-old responded.

Evelyn Sanchez, 17, a junior also enrolled in the class, later told a reporter that she has taken five AP courses so far.

"It's a good experience, because we get a taste of what college classes are like," she said.

Of 183 graduates last year, 76 percent were bound for colleges, with 32 percent headed for four-year campuses, the state reported.

 

Goals: structural, academic

Albany's intervention had two broad goals from the outset.

One objective -- the easier to accomplish, as it turned out -- revolved around Roosevelt's management and infrastructure. The idea was to curb local political infighting, erase budget deficits and rebuild aging schools -- two of which were deemed safety hazards.

Those efforts have been largely successful, though school construction projects have been marked by delays and cost overruns, and some residents worry about the cost of upkeep on newly expanded schools.

Exhibit A is Roosevelt's once-shabby high school. The sprawling, two-story structure is due to reopen in September following a $66.9-million renovation and expansion that includes newly air-conditioned classrooms, 16 science and computer labs, a dance studio and job-training centers for prospective chefs and nurses.

Completion of the high school project caps a districtwide, $245.5-million reconstruction effort launched in 2004 -- the most ambitious face-lift of its sort ever undertaken on the Island.

Since May, student groups have toured the rebuilt high school, admiring its features. Brianna Doe, 16, a sophomore, said she was especially impressed by new fume-suppressant safety equipment in laboratories that will allow her and classmates to do science experiments they've never tried before.

"I was wowed, the building was so beautiful," said Doe, who served as a volunteer tour guide.

The other objective was to boost students' academic achievement to levels acceptable under state and federal standards. That was a tough order in a district so pressed to raise test scores that it once briefly considered paying youngsters $3.35 an hour to attend after-school tutoring.

Roosevelt High School remains on the state's list of so-called Schools Under Registration Review, or SURR. The list includes schools in the state's bottom 5 percent, academically speaking. Roosevelt High has been stuck there more than 20 years running -- a state record.

Technically, SURR schools failing to improve can be stripped of state registrations -- shut down, in other words. The state, however, has never spelled out exactly how that might work in a district, such as Roosevelt, with only one high school.

Lack of progress on this front has convinced many community and state leaders alike that the intervention never fulfilled its purpose.

"We should have been off the state's SURR list by now," Boxley said.

 

Problems amid takeover

Mismanagement by some state-appointed school administrators left a bad taste.

In September 2006, the Education Department discovered that the superintendent at the time, Ronald O. Ross, had run up a budget deficit eventually pegged at $8 million. Ross insisted the extra spending was essential to expand student services, but expenses included $6,000 for his own planned educational travel to Argentina and Antarctica. After public outcry, the trip was canceled.

State administrators encountered embarrassments of their own. In January 2007, Education Department officials revealed that construction of a new Roosevelt Middle School was costing significantly more than originally estimated. Overruns ultimately totaled $16 million; $5 million was reimbursed by insurance.

The extra costs were for cleanup of higher-than-expected levels of DDT on the 11-acre school site. The land previously was occupied by a county mosquito-control unit, and excavated dirt was so polluted that it had to be hauled to a Canadian landfill.

Roosevelt residents voiced outrage over ballooning costs. In April 2007, the state education commissioner at the time, Richard Mills, appeared at a public meeting in the district and admitted he had been too slow in stemming the flow of red ink. Ross stepped down two months later and Mills resigned the following year, both under fire.

Disillusionment over Roosevelt's experience has raised questions over how the state might better deal with other districts facing similar problems, such as Hempstead and Wyandanch.

"In the bigger picture, there continue to be districts around the state that are struggling," said Assemb. Robert Sweeney (D-Lindenhurst), a longtime state legislator whose constituent area includes Wyandanch. "But I don't think we'll ever see the state Education Department proposing taking over a district like Roosevelt again, simply because it wasn't a very good experience for them."

 

Lessons learned nationwide

States such as Ohio and Michigan are re-examining their takeover policies. One national education leader, Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said that takeovers generally have not made much academic headway.

Domenech knows the issue from the inside. In 1995, as a regional BOCES superintendent on Long Island, he headed a state-appointed panel that monitored Roosevelt's day-to-day operations -- a preliminary step toward direct takeover.

"Certainly, from my perspective at the national level, state takeovers are hardly the model to follow," said Domenech, whose association, based in a Washington, D.C., suburb, represents more than 13,000 educators in the United States and worldwide.

Albany's leaders have begun talking about alternatives. The Regents, for example, sought authorization this year and last to appoint three-member oversight panels as replacements for school boards in failing districts. State legislators have taken no action on the plan.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has been virtually silent on the issue, though an education commission established by the governor last year is exploring various options. These include use of BOCES agencies in sponsoring regional magnet schools, or countywide school consolidation -- a system used in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.

Advocates of the latter approach say it benefits schools in poor neighborhoods, because they can draw on financial and academic support from a broader community.

Yet another alternative is the creation of "recovery districts," an approach now being tried in Louisiana, Michigan and Tennessee. Under this concept, states establish new agencies, smaller and nimbler than traditional education departments, to take over failing schools.

Analysts who have reviewed Louisiana's 10-year experience conclude that affected schools there generally are doing at least a bit better academically, although student scores remain well below state averages.

"The question is, can you keep showing improvement over a long period of time? And the jury is still out on that," said Michael Griffith, a consultant for the Education Commission of the States, an interstate agency that shares information on educational practices. He spoke last month at an Albany symposium organized by the governor's commission.

 

Results in Roosevelt, so far

In Roosevelt, academic progress is measured in small increments.

Statewide graduation rates for the 2011-12 school year, released by the Education Department earlier this month, showed that Roosevelt's rate had risen to 68.5 percent for the Class of 2012. That was up more than 7 percentage points from the previous year, though well below the state's 80 percent standard.

School supervisors point to such improvements as a sign of better things to come.

"I think we're ready," said Virginia Rogers, the high school's social studies chairman and a district employee for 26 years. "We're a much more serious district that looks at the students' needs."

Financial changes in Roosevelt under the takeover have been dramatic.

Albany pledged to pay 98 percent of school construction and renovation costs -- a commitment of up to $217.5 million. In addition, the state paid off the $8-million deficit run up during the Ross administration and boosted Roosevelt's aid allotments by $12 million annually.

As a result, Roosevelt's $88.9-million budget for the 2013-14 school year translates into more than $31,000 per student -- $5,000 above Nassau County's average. Nearly 75 percent of the district's funding comes from state and federal aid, compared with an Islandwide average of less than 30 percent.

Some state lawmakers involved in Roosevelt's financial recovery contend the district is well-positioned for independence. They note that Roosevelt's five school board members -- all locally elected -- agreed on a new superintendent, Deborah Wortham, 64, who takes over Monday.

She replaces Robert Wayne-Harris, the district's last state-appointed superintendent.

"I believe there's a bright future ahead with a new superintendent, new school buildings," said state Sen. Charles Fuschillo (R-Merrick), whose constituency includes Roosevelt. "They still need to do some work on student performance. But I believe this is a good time for the state to relinquish control, and give the district back to its residents."

Roosevelt residents look forward to regaining local control. Many, however, remain concerned about the district's future.

Potential financial problems loom: Six local unions representing hundreds of Roosevelt teachers and other workers all have expired contracts that must be renegotiated.

The $6 million in state aid allotted Roosevelt each year is subject to lawmakers' annual votes and is not guaranteed. Some residents fear the money could be withheld -- as it was during the 2011-12 school year -- because of political hang-ups in Albany.

 

Fate still rooted in politics

Some political fissures already have appeared.

Deputy Assembly Speaker Earlene Hooper (D-Hempstead), whose constituency includes Roosevelt, sponsored bills in April and earlier this month aimed at extending the state's authority there. Legislative language in both measures said this would improve children's educations, but offered no further explanation.

The bills were passed in the Assembly, but not in the Senate. Hooper, a key figure in the state's $8-million bailout of Roosevelt, did not return Newsday's phone calls last week.

Hooper's actions were questioned by Gerald Lauber, the district's state-appointed financial administrator.

"If the district is doing better than in the past, if the school buildings are in good shape, why would anybody want to move back to the days of takeover?" Lauber said.

Lauber, 70, faces an uncertain future. Officially, he steps down Sunday from his appointed position, which has made him a major shaper of Roosevelt's policies, both academic and financial. The school board has twice delayed action on a resolution retaining Lauber as a consultant, and is scheduled to revisit the issue at a meeting Tuesday.

Board trustees also plan a July retreat, where they are to consider steps aimed at maintaining political stability.

Robert Summerville, 77, the board president, has warned of the risks of renewed infighting. He personally favors extending trustees' terms from three years to five, to lessen the possibility that control of the board might shift with annual elections.

"Boards can change almost overnight," Summerville said. "If that happens, we could lose all our momentum and absolutely change the direction of the school district."

 

 

HOW ROOSEVELT SCHOOL DISTRICT FARED

 

Roosevelt district in 2001-02 (before state takeover) and 10 years later

Enrollment, pre-K through 12th grade

2001-02: 3,319

2011-12: 2,867

Percent of subsidized lunch students

2001-02: 92.9%

2011-12: 56%

Number of students graduating

2001-02: 79

2011-12: 183

Percent of students graduating

2001-02: 42%

2011-12: 68.5%

Percent of graduates with Regents diploma

2001-02: 12%

2011-12: 87%

Percent of college-bound graduates

Two-year schools

2001-02: 45%

2011-12: 44%

Four-year schools

2001-02: 36%

2011-12: 32%

Per-student spending

2001-02: $12,475

2011-12: $31,661

Roosevelt median household income

2000: $56,715

2011: $65,362 (for five years ending in 2011)

Sources: New York State Education Department; Newsday calculations

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