On the once-scruffy ballfields outside Roosevelt Middle School, landscapers finished work recently on a new sports complex -- part of a state-subsidized, $245.5-million physical do-over of the entire district.
At the same hour, two dozen students inside the school marched through an air-conditioned auditorium to get high school diplomas. The summer commencement reflected state efforts to boost graduation rates -- still among Long Island's lowest, though school officials say the most recent rate shows improvement.
Parents and relatives rose to cheer the new graduates. Several praised school staffers' persistence in helping teenagers who had lagged months, or even years, behind in their coursework.
"The teachers, coaches, really stuck with him and helped him," said James Merchant, 54, father of a graduate Jamie, 19, as he choked back tears. "I didn't think he'd make it."
After 11 years, the state's intervention in the Roosevelt Union Free School District is coming to a close.
On June 30, the 2,700-student district will take back control from state authorities who have named its top administrators and approved its budgets since 2002. Albany's takeover under special legislation was intended, among other goals, to repair decaying schools and boost dismal test scores.
Results so far have been decidedly mixed at the only system in New York ever placed under the state's direct management. While academic results have been disappointing so far, the renovation work would have to count as a qualified success.
Four schools, including some once considered hazardous, have either been reconstructed or built anew. The project's capstone, a thoroughly renovated high school, is due to reopen in January with an expanded library and gym, new science and computer labs, a dance studio and commercial-class kitchen designed to train students for culinary jobs.
Progress, at times, has been bumpy. The high school originally was to reopen this week, but that date has been pushed back. Charles Szuberla, the state's assistant commissioner for school operations, said postponement reflected concerns that a hasty opening might compromise the quality of reconstruction.
"It's a tremendous step up from what we had," said Joe Vito, who is entering his 22nd year as a football coach.
On the academic side, there has been less progress.
Roosevelt High School, now housed in the middle school building, is in its 21st year as a School Under Registration Review. That's Albany's term for schools on the bottom rung of achievement.
In 2011, the latest year recorded by the state, only 61 percent of Roosevelt's students graduated on time -- 13 points below the state average. Only 3 percent of those graduates earned "advanced" Regents diplomas signifying completion of trigonometry and other courses that would have prepared them well for college. That was the lowest figure on the Island except for tiny Bridgehampton High, which had no advanced diplomas.
Roosevelt has scored some academic gains. Ninety-seven of the district's 156 graduates earned basic Regents diplomas in 2011. Ten years before, no graduates earned such credentials requiring studies at a minimum college-prep level.
Nonetheless, longtime Roosevelt residents often contrast the district's industrious rebuilding with its sluggish scholarship. "As I said from the very beginning, beautification is not education," said Maureen Powell, the widow of a former school board member, who has lived in Roosevelt since 1964. "If they'd used that money to put something in students' heads -- a good education, that's what's important, because it's your ticket to a better life. A few students may have gotten that, but I don't feel that most of the kids have."
District's future murky
Regional analysts note that Roosevelt is among a handful of Island districts where educational achievement suffers from the twin effects of poverty and racial/ethnic isolation. Virtually all local students are black or Hispanic. Twenty percent speak limited English. Eighty-four percent are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
Despite extensive poverty, Roosevelt has a high-level of school financing. For this school year, Roosevelt has budgeted the equivalent of $31,600 per student -- more than $7,000 above the Island's average -- according to financial "report cards" released last spring by the state. Nearly three-quarters of revenue comes from outside the district, mostly in the form of state aid.
With financial help from Albany, the high school this semester is adding college-level Advanced Placement courses in Spanish literature, U.S. government and U.S. history, as well as ROTC training for prospective Army officers. The high school also will impose a dress code on students -- a rule long enforced in the district's elementary schools.
Stephen Strachan, now entering his third year as high school principal, said in a recent interview that the latest graduation rate appears near 80 percent, including the 24 teens who earned diplomas earlier this month. Strachan acknowledged, however, that official figures won't be released until next spring.
"I think we're putting some great things in place here that I'd like to continue," Strachan said. "I have some great teachers here, so it's not about me, it's about them."
Roosevelt's future is uncertain. Robert-Wayne Harris, the district superintendent, told parents in an Aug. 17 letter that his six-year tenure probably would end in June, when state control runs out.
The school board president, Robert Summerville, said he is generally optimistic about the district's future prospects. Summerville added, however, that he is acutely aware of his district's overdependence on state aid which, in the past, has tended to ebb and flow with the economy.
"When the state catches cold, the school district catches double pneumonia," he said.
Roger Tilles of Great Neck, the Island's representative to the state Board of Regents, said in a separate interview that Roosevelt's future depends largely on whether its school board can maintain a unity that often has appeared shaky. One factor that prompted the state's 2002 intervention was partisan fighting for control of the board and its hiring patronage that turned Roosevelt's front office into a revolving door for administrators.
"The main hope I have is that this board will function well together and with the superintendent," said Tilles, who has dealt with Roosevelt's troubles for much of his seven years on the state's educational-policy board. "That's been a problem in the past. And it's the essence of what's needed in Roosevelt."
Centennial Elementary School Phase I (completed Aug. 30, 2005): $21,698,403
Centennial Elementary School Phase II (completed Aug. 28, 2009): $10,673,522
Washington-Rose Elementary School (completed Feb. 10, 2007): $30,500,000
Ulysses Byas Elementary School (completed Aug. 25, 2008): $31,500,000
Roosevelt Middle School (completed July 29, 2008): $70,500,000*
Project Under Way
Roosevelt High School (to be completed by January): $77,892,433
*The district received $5 million in insurance reimbursement for site remediation at the middle school, effectively reducing its cost to $65 million.
NOTE: The total authorized for district renovation was $245.5 million. That is more than what has been spent or committed so far because districts often borrow slightly more than anticipated to cover unexpected costs, education officials said.
SOURCE: State Education Department