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State schools chief to Hempstead: Beef up the fix-it plan

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia on June 12,

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia on June 12, 2017. Credit: Hans Pennink

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia on Thursday ordered the acting chief of the troubled Hempstead school district to send her monthly progress reports on efforts to turn the system around, declaring that local authorities have not yet “adequately addressed” festering problems.

The commissioner, while thanking acting Superintendent Regina Armstrong for her efforts so far, made clear her dissatisfaction and impatience with what she described as the district’s failure to come up with strategies to deal with numerous weaknesses.

The list of problems still to be addressed included student bullying, gang-related activities, inadequate teacher training, substandard instruction for students with limited English skills and poor financial management.

“Not only is school safety the top concern raised by parents in your school community, but we also know that students cannot succeed in an environment where they are not comfortable and secure,” Elia stated in her letter to Armstrong.

Elia’s letter came less than two weeks after district officials submitted to her an action plan — as she had mandated — to address problems outlined in a 56-page report by special adviser Jack Bierwirth, the veteran Long Island educator whom Elia appointed to assess the 8,000-student system’s operations.

The commissioner acknowledged that Armstrong, who has held the post since Jan. 9, could be successful only with support from the district’s five-member school board.

“As you move forward with the plan’s implementation, it is my expectation that you will work closely with Dr. Bierwirth to keep track of and report data points, metrics, and action steps, and establish specific dates for milestones,” Elia wrote.

Armstrong, in response to the commissioner’s letter, said in a statement that the district’s action plan “was a starting point and framework” for responding to Bierwirth’s recommendations.

“Over the next several months, the district will be working around the clock to ensure all needed plans have been drafted, but most importantly implemented,” Armstrong wrote.

She also pledged to provide the monthly progress reports to Elia and said the district’s residents would be updated at the school board’s monthly meetings.

Armstrong, a longtime administrator in the district, was named acting superintendent when the board voted 3-2 to place Superintendent Shimon Waronker on paid administrative leave.

Board members, while saying that they intend to cooperate with the state efforts to improve Hempstead schools, have continued to split 3-2 in some recent votes on district financial matters, reflecting a failure to resolve political disputes.

Among the major points in Elia’s letter to the district were:

  • The board’s plan fails to reference recommendations to improve student safety, including proactive measures to prevent bullying and harassment, and to create smaller and more nurturing “learning communities” within Hempstead High School.
  • The board must provide a capital blueprint, detailing steps for repairs of aging schools and expansion of classroom space now seriously overcrowded.
  • The district must give clearer expectations to teachers and staff in terms of improving high school instruction. Students with disabilities and those with limited English skills are particularly high-priority groups.
  • Training must be provided for the district’s business staff to prevent losses of state financial aid and “tax levy issues.”

In addition to these challenges, the Hempstead system faces a pivotal moment in terms of the high school’s future management.

State education officials confirmed earlier this week that an auditor had been dispatched to the district to check on whether high school students during the 2016-17 year made adequate progress in earning course credits toward graduation. A negative finding could affect a pending state decision on whether to place the high school under an outside manager, known as an independent receiver.

The commissioner’s letter to the district was released just a few hours before an evening board meeting, where a presentation was given on a multi-year plan for fixing dilapidated school buildings and other infrastructure needs.

With Zachary R. Dowdy

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