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Hempstead High principal: I can't vouch for students' grades

Hempstead High School principal Reginald Stroughn outside the

Hempstead High School principal Reginald Stroughn outside the Hempstead High School on June 3, 2014. Credit: Barry Sloan

The principal who took over Hempstead High School after revelations of a grade-changing scandal says he has been shut out of responsibility for student scores for much of the school year and cannot vouch for the validity of graduating seniors' grades.

District officials acknowledged Thursday that executive principal Reginald Stroughn was excluded from the process, but said they were justified in taking charge of grading and are confident that students' scores are accurate.

Stroughn, who took the job in July 2013 as part of a management shake-up, said in an interview that he expects to be forced out at the end of this month and he wants the record to show that he does not bear responsibility for any further improprieties that may be uncovered.

"I should have been in the loop. I'm not in the loop," said Stroughn, 62. "I came here with a good reputation. I'm going to leave here with my reputation intact. If I'd been in charge, I would have made sure our sons and daughters had the ability to graduate."

Superintendent Susan Johnson, who took office in November 2012, confirmed through a spokesman that Stroughn will leave June 30. But the superintendent said that was the date agreed upon when he was hired -- a point disputed by Stroughn, who said the agreement was for a three-year stint.

Stroughn, in a letter dated May 21 and sent to local and regional school officials, said Johnson earlier this year took responsibility for student grading out of his hands, though that normally is part of a principal's job. He said Johnson turned the task over to other managers.

Consequently, Stroughn said, he could not verify the accuracy of more than 2,000 quarterly grades added to students' report cards this school year in an effort to fill in missing records, or the accuracy of transcripts of more than 300 students who are set to graduate June 29.

Stroughn noted that the state Department of Education plans to conduct an audit of district grading practices as a follow-up to an initial, highly critical audit that was completed in April.


Audit found grades altered

That audit found that Hempstead officials routinely and improperly boosted students' grades from failing to passing during the 2012-13 school year, before Stroughn took over at the high school. Auditors reported that district employees changed 2,225 quarterly and final grades for 1,294 students that year, and that the district could provide reasons for only 8 percent of the changes.

The 6,600-student Hempstead district is one of Long Island's poorest and has experienced frequent changes in political control of the school board and rapid turnover of administrators. Hempstead's graduation rate of 38 percent in 2011-12 was the lowest among the 124 districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties.

The veteran principal, in his recent letter to Johnson, Nassau BOCES Superintendent Thomas Rogers and Roger Tilles, Long Island's representative on the state Board of Regents, listed his monthslong issues with the handling of high school students' grades, grade-point averages, transcripts and other records.

He noted that large-scale problems with grading continued this academic year. As an example, he cited 2,200 grades found in February to be missing from the report cards of high school students for the first and second marking periods.

Stroughn added that the job of filling in the missing grades was taken over by administrators in the district's information technology and guidance departments, working directly with teachers.

Nathan Jackson, the district's public relations representative, Thursday confirmed the number of missing grades, and said they were missing for a variety of reasons. Those included technical problems with electronic record keeping, late data entries by some teachers and midterm departures by some other teachers who took medical leaves, he said.

Jackson also confirmed that Johnson had excluded the principal from a group of administrators responsible for managing student grading. Jackson said the superintendent believed such action was necessary to make sure that corrections of student records went smoothly, especially because Hempstead was being monitored by state auditors.

"The superintendent saw that Mr. Stroughn was not up to the task and intervened to avoid the potential mishandling of the situation, since the district is under scrutiny," Jackson said in a written statement.


New electronic system

The statement explained that Hempstead had moved to electronic recording of student grades before Johnson's and Stroughn's arrivals, and encountered technical problems with the new system. Previously, the district relied on teachers to keep paper grade books and enter grades manually into an electronic database.

A report presented to the school board Thursday showed 326 seniors at the high school, including 111 who have been in high school more than four years. Of the total, 158 students were listed as definitely due to graduate later this month, 111 as potentially due to graduate and 57 as not expected to graduate.

"We're going to make an intense effort the next 10 to 15 days to get students through Regents exams, whatever we have to do academically," added Betty Cross, the school board president. "I feel good about it."

Tilles, of Great Neck, has urged the Education Department to press its inquiry into Hempstead's grading practices.

"We haven't seen anything like this in my nine years on the Regents," said Tilles, referring to the number of grades altered that were cited in the Education Department's audit.

Stroughn also was Hempstead High's principal from 2003 to 2009 -- a period when graduation rates peaked at 65 percent before falling slightly. In 2008, the School Administrators Association of New York State named him high school principal of the year.

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