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Hempstead High School comes under extra state scrutiny

Hempstead High School on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018.

Hempstead High School on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018. Credit: Howard Schnapp

ALBANY — An unprecedented state audit is under way at Hempstead High School to see if students are on track to graduate, and the results could determine if the school becomes the state’s first to be run by an outside manager, state Education Department officials said Tuesday.

The agency sent an auditor to the school this week and may send more monitors within the next several weeks. The officials, who spoke on the condition that they not be named, described the action to check on students’ past performance as the first of its kind in state history.

The purpose was to review students’ records to determine if they had accumulated enough course credits to be moving toward graduation, said Emily DeSantis, a spokeswoman for Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia.

The intensive audit of academic records for the 2016-17 school year is being conducted under a state receivership law adopted in 2015 with strong support from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

This is a pivotal week for the 8,000-student Hempstead system, which has become a focus of state scrutiny because of low academic achievement, administrative turnover, political infighting on the school board, school safety issues, aging infrastructure and other troubles.

On Thursday night, the five-member school board is scheduled to review a preliminary budget proposal for the 2018-19 academic year, as well as a five-year plan to renovate schools, expand classroom space and eliminate portable units.

Both the budget review and the capital planning have been ordered by the state on the recommendation of veteran educator Jack Bierwirth, whom Elia appointed last fall with a broad mandate to assess all district operations.

A key policymaker, Roger Tilles of Great Neck, who represents Long Island on the state Board of Regents, said the outcome of efforts to turn around the troubled district holds significance for all 124 public school systems across Nassau and Suffolk counties.

“We’re only as good as districts with the highest needs, and Hempstead is one of them,” said Tilles, who noted that high-quality public education is a point of regional pride. “We have to make that school district work in order for all of us to claim success on Long Island.”

Records for the 2016-17 school year and course-credit accumulations are among a number of indicators used to determine if low-performing schools are making adequate progress from year-to-year.

Hempstead High School was among those the state designated in 2015, under the receivership law, as “persistently struggling” for failing to meet federal and state standards for at least 10 consecutive years and being in the bottom 5 percent statewide in terms of academic achievement. It was the only school on the Island in that category.

Under the law, district superintendents initially are put in direct charge of low-performing schools as “receivers” and are given a year or two to show improvement. Should that fail, the next step is to bring in an outside manager.

The law gives local school boards an opportunity to name independent receivers, with such appointments requiring approval by the education commissioner. If the commissioner does not approve the choice within 60 days, she or he has the final say on the manager.

On Oct. 31, the Education Department announced that 68 schools statewide remained in superintendents’ receivership status, down from 72 schools the year before. The agency noted at the time that data from Hempstead High School still was under review, and that its status would be determined at a later date.

This week, state education officials said the current audit at Hempstead High could last several weeks, and a decision on the school’s status could quickly follow.

Elia already took a major step toward closer monitoring of Hempstead by appointing Bierwirth as special adviser. His title is “distinguished educator,” and he is scheduled to work with the district’s officials through much of the fall.

In a Jan. 8 report, Bierwirth noted that even pinning down enrollment figures for the high school was difficult. The number of students in the current senior class reported to him ranged from 575 to 872, he wrote, and the actual figure was the higher one, which included fifth- and sixth-year students.

Education Department data for the 2016-17 school year, the most recent available, showed the high school’s total enrollment as 2,493, with 677 in the 12th grade.

Bierwirth’s report also detailed a lack of the course credits necessary for graduation, with a “substantial proportion” of current 12th-graders having “0-10 credits and 0 or 1 Regents credits.” Students who are on track to graduate by the end of 11th grade normally would have a minimum of 16 to 17 credits, including five Regents course credits, the report noted.

“Further analysis showed that students had taken various Regents courses and the corresponding exams 3, 4, 5, 6 and even 7 times with falling numbers with each attempt to re-take as some students who had failed simply stopped trying,” Bierwirth wrote.

In his recommendations, the special adviser said steps should be taken immediately to “intervene in the progress of students in grade 12 who are not ready for graduation — particularly those with too few credits earned — to support them in finding constructive paths to success.”

Regina Armstrong, who has served as Hempstead’s acting superintendent since Jan. 9, said Tuesday that her administrative team is working toward meeting state requirements with Bierwirth’s help.

“When your district’s in the spotlight, you get used to this,” Armstrong said. “What the state Education Department is doing is making sure that we’re on target to meet our goals. We welcome it, because we have nothing to hide.”

Hempstead High and receivership

July 16, 2015. The state Education Department utilizes a new law to turn around failing schools, placing 144 schools statewide under receivership. Hempstead High School is classified as “persistently struggling” for not meeting federal and state standards for at least a decade.

Oct. 5, 2016. Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia says Hempstead High made “demonstrable improvement” during the 2015-16 year. Among the improvement targets met was an increase in students’ graduation rate after four years of high school, from 42 percent for the Class of 2015 to 52 percent for the Class of 2016.

Oct. 31, 2017. Hempstead High’s receivership status is designated as “under review.” Education Department officials say they are analyzing test records, reports on student conduct and other data to determine if the information is accurate.

Feb. 13, 2018. Education Department officials say a special audit of high school students’ 2016-17 academic records and course credits is being done to determine if they are on track to graduate.

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