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Hempstead school officials unveil ambitious overhaul plan for district

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On Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018, the Hempstead school district rolled out a "Course of Action" plan which aims to overhaul every aspect of operations. Credit: Newsday / Raychel Brightman

An ambitious “Course of Action” plan for the troubled Hempstead school district, outlined at a board meeting Thursday night, would essentially overhaul every aspect of operations — from governance to classroom instruction and technology to school security.

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia has ordered the plan’s submission to her by Friday. The five-member school board voted unanimously on Jan. 17 to move ahead with such planning.

The blueprint, drafted by acting Superintendent Regina Armstrong at the board’s direction, lays out a series of steps that, if successful, could eventually remove Hempstead from the state’s list of dysfunctional districts.

Armstrong emphasized the need for building improvements during her 45-minute presentation of the plan and announced that a possible bond issue for construction and renovation would be discussed at a Feb. 15 board meeting.

“I am happy to report that we just finished our assessment of all facilities,” she said.

Technically, the “Course of Action” plan is called a response, because it addresses points that Jack Bierwirth, a state-appointed adviser to the 8,000-student system, raised in a wide-ranging report to Elia last month — findings and recommendations that the commissioner approved.

Most steps required under the sweeping new plan would be in place by the end of the current calendar year. Some could require more time — most notably, the formulation and execution of a five-year plan for renovating and expanding school buildings.

Among the required steps highlighted in the “Course of Action” plan reviewed Thursday night:

  • Training sessions already underway for the five members of Hempstead’s school board are intended, in part, to encourage more open, transparent meetings, as well as an increased number of unanimous votes. The five-member board generally has split 3-2 on major issues.
  • The state attorney general’s office or another appropriate agency would be asked to help monitor annual school board elections. One aim would be reducing disputes over election results that have produced expensive lawsuits in the past.
  • The number of high school students earning state Regents diplomas would be increased at a rate of 5 percent to 10 percent annually, and the number of students below grade level would be reduced. Latest available state statistics show that less than half of Hempstead’s students graduate on time each year — one of the worst records in the state.
  • All secondary students will be issued ID cards allowing them to enter school grounds for the 2018-19 school year. Security cameras will be upgraded and exit doors equipped with motion detectors to enhance security. The idea is to reduce fighting among students, which has been exacerbated by gang rivalries.
  • The district’s student Code of Conduct will be updated, along with an attendance policy that will emphasize reductions in truancy. Corrective measures will be spelled out for violators, with more emphasis on improving behavior and less emphasis on expulsions.
  • A five-year capital improvement plan will be drawn up and include the rebuilding of the district’s Rhodes School, which has been shuttered since 2004. Reopening Rhodes would relieve overcrowding, and allow Hempstead to tear down some aging prefab classrooms.

The overhaul’s success is not guaranteed, because political divisions within Hempstead’s board and the wider community remain deep.

Bierwirth said the evening’s discussion of the comprehensive plan left him hopeful, but added, “It isn’t about hopes, and it isn’t about plans, it’s about whether things are getting done or not.”

One of the blueprint’s features is a precise schedule for when most required corrective steps would begin.

Planning on capital improvements, for example, already has begun. Work on security cameras and door alarms would begin in the summer if funding is provided in the district’s 2018-19 budget, which will be presented to district voters on May 15.

Hempstead’s troubles are long-standing, and some are complicated by socioeconomic factors beyond the control of the school system. Seventy percent of students are economically disadvantaged and 39 percent have limited English skills, according to the state’s latest data.

Other problems, particularly the political infighting, have resulted in escalating intervention by the state.

The most dramatic change took place in September, when Elia appointed Bierwirth to serve as a special consultant to the district, providing guidance to local officials and reporting back to Albany on his findings every three months.

Bierwirth’s job title is “distinguished educator,” and his appointment marked only the second time the state has taken such action.

On Jan. 17, all five board trustees voted to accept the adviser’s 56-page report detailing the district’s weaknesses and recommending changes. At that time, the board directed Armstrong to devise a plan implementing the adviser’s findings.

Bierwirth’s report laid out dozens of recommendations, most of which are reflected either directly or indirectly in the “Course of Action” plan.

Members of the board’s majority have insisted in recent weeks that they take the state’s intervention seriously.

One trustee, David Gates, told Bierwirth on Thursday that he would welcome monthly updates on whether Hempstead is meeting his recommendations.

“I don’t want any trouble,” Gates said.

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