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Long IslandEducation

Hempstead district hopes for positive word from state

Fadhilika Atiba-Weza, Hempstead interim superintendent, led two public

Fadhilika Atiba-Weza, Hempstead interim superintendent, led two public forums Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2016, to discuss the receivership status of Hempstead High School and Alverta B. Gray Schultz Middle School. Photo Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

The Hempstead school district hopes to receive a positive evaluation from the state on its efforts to improve academic achievement after two of its schools were placed in state receivership last year, school officials told residents and staff members at two hearings on Tuesday.

“The state has set some relatively low benchmarks for us” to improve a dismal graduation rate by several percentage points, but the district must aim much higher, said the interim superintendent, Fadhilika Atiba-Weza, addressing nearly two dozen people at the Hempstead High School auditorium for the first hearing. “Our target is 100 percent graduation rate. . . . If you shoot for more and you miss, you are at least in the clouds.”

The district convened the evening hearings as its middle and high schools reached the end of their first year under the increased scrutiny of receivership — the result of a state law passed last year in a push to increase accountability from districts with underperforming schools.

Hempstead High School was labeled “persistently struggling” for failing to meet standards for at least 10 years, and Alverta B. Gray Schultz Middle School was labeled “struggling” after falling below standards for at least three consecutive years.

The district is the only one on Long Island that had two of its schools placed under receivership after the state law passed in April 2015, giving superintendents in affected schools expanded powers to hire and fire and oversee the effort for improvements. Tuesday’s hearings were mandated by state regulations.

State education officials indicated Tuesday that news regarding Hempstead schools’ status should be coming soon.

Jonathan Burman, an Education Department spokesman, said a decision is due on Hempstead High School, which under the law could be placed under the control of outside managers if it didn’t show concrete academic improvement after the first year under receivership. The middle school has another year to show improvement.

In a written statement, Burman said that MaryEllen Elia, the state’s education commissioner, “expects to make a decision,” which could come around the beginning of the school year, “about whether an independent receiver will need to be appointed to the school for the 2016-17 school year.”

The high school — where more than 2,200 students were enrolled as of June 2015, the latest state figures available — was under pressure to show academic improvement by the end of this school year. The middle school, which reported enrollment of 1,527 students as of June 2015, has until next year to produce better results, or it too could be taken from the superintendent’s control.

Hempstead High School’s four-year graduation rate was at 49 percent for the 2014-15 school year, the most recent state figures available. That was well below a state graduation-rate standard of 80 percent for the class cohort that started in 2010. The 2015-16 figures have not yet been issued.

Stephen Strachan, the high school principal, told those at the hearing that he’s “cautiously optimistic” on meeting the state’s benchmarks in 11 areas that include graduation, reducing student incidents that cause disruption and expanding advanced placement opportunities.

The districts had brought in outside help, added instruction time and broke up the high school into five academies for the coming year — one for ninth grade and others by subjects, where students can receive more individualized attention, he said.

He couldn’t yet offer an updated graduation rate, though.

“We feel we have made significant progress, given the time,” Strachan said.

At Alverta B. Gray Schultz Middle School, which serves grades six through eight, 7 percent of 1,200 students tested were deemed proficient in the state English language arts test given in April, compared with 38 percent statewide who met proficiency standards. On the state math test, 4 percent of the middle school’s 1,223 students tested this year were proficient, compared with 39 percent statewide. Last year, 6 percent of English test-takers and 4 percent of math test-takers met the proficiency standard at the middle school.

Interim Principal Hank Williams told those who attended the hearing at the middle school of scheduling changes to add two periods and increase learning time, and of adding emphasis on literacy across the curriculum.

“If these students can read and write well, they’re going to do better. Period. So that has to be our focus,” Williams said.

Victoria Culbreath, a longtime resident whose son will start his junior year at the high school next month, said she sees the district is doing better but wants to see that reflected in concrete measures, like the graduation rate.

“As a parent, the most important thing is that data,” said Culbreath, 50, who is a volunteer in a community engagement team established for the receivership process. “I have seen improvement in the school,” she said — but she is pressing the district for details, “because I want to continue the movement in the right direction.”

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