Hundreds of Hempstead High School students were inaccurately counted as making satisfactory progress with their coursework in the 2016-17 year, according to state education officials who had a blunt message Thursday for the district’s administrators: Straighten out your records or face a potential takeover of the high school by outside managers.
Auditors with the state Education Department found instances in which the number of high school students earning adequate numbers of course credits was highly exaggerated, Associate Commissioner Ira Schwartz informed the Hempstead district by letter Thursday.
The audit found, for example, that only 57 percent of students who entered the high school as ninth-graders during the 2014-15 school year earned at least five course credits — the minimum number deemed adequate — during the 2016-17 year when most would have been 11th-graders.
By comparison, the Hempstead district had reported that 90 percent of those students had earned at least five credits.
Schwartz, who heads the Education Department’s Office of Accountability, acknowledged that the 2,400-student high school, despite its relatively poor performance, met the minimum academic targets set by the state for 2016-17.
He added, however, that the school’s poor record-keeping meant that his agency could not certify that it had made adequate progress in improving its academic status during that academic year.
Schwartz went on to say that if Hempstead does not upgrade its dysfunctional data in the current school year, that could “result in the appointment of an independent receiver” to the school. Other department officials said they expect a final decision on the high school’s status to be made in the fall.
Under state law, that would mean that an outside manager, such as an independent charter-school administrator or retired educator, would step in to run Hempstead High School. No high schools within the state are currently under independent receivers.
A spokeswoman for the Hempstead district, Nicole Epstein, said administrators there, joined by a newly hired assistant superintendent of technology information, have been working since January to improve not only data collection, but also the storage and reporting of such information.
“We agree with the New York State Education Department’s findings that it is absolutely critical that the district improve its data collection and data management systems,” Epstein said in a statement issued on behalf of the district.
The statement went on to express hope that the Education Department’s latest critical report would not overshadow recent staff and student successes. Stephanie Chevez, this year’s high school valedictorian, and Bairon Reyes Luna, the salutatorian, will be attending Harvard and Yale universities, respectively, in the fall, according to the statement.
State officials said the discovery of inaccurate data would not affect students who are slated to graduate next month. The district said it did not have a number of seniors who are expected to graduate.
Hempstead High School is the only school on Long Island, and among three statewide, that is classified by the state as “persistently struggling” under a 2015 receivership law aimed at turning around failing schools. Schools with that designation have not met state and federal standards for at least a decade.
Hempstead High principal Stephen Strachan, reached by phone Thursday, declined to comment, saying the district still is “trying to figure things out.”
He was principal during the year in which the disputed student records originally were collected, then worked in another district and was hired back to the job in Hempstead in mid-January by the school board’s three-member majority.
In their report, state auditors said “time did not allow” for them to determine why such a large discrepancy existed between their own calculations of the numbers of students making adequate progress in coursework, as compared with the district’s original figures.
Maribel Touré, the school board president, said Thursday that the Education Department’s findings showed why the district brought in new leadership last June, when Shimon Waronker began work as superintendent.
“He’s the only one willing to start from scratch,” she said.
The school board voted to place Waronker on administrative leave with pay in early January, after control of the five-member panel changed to the current majority. He has brought legal action against the district.
Longtime Hempstead administrator Regina Armstrong is serving as acting superintendent.