The Hempstead School Board voted 3-2 Thursday night to hire as its new superintendent Shimon Waronker, an administrator noted for improving dangerous and struggling public schools in New York City, and a proponent of reforming traditional models of education.
Waronker, 48, a Harvard-educated Hasidic Jew from Chile who served as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Army, currently is head of school for The Jewish Academy in Commack and oversees three city schools.
School board president Maribel Toure and trustees Melissa Figueroa and Gwendolyn Jackson voted to hire Waronker. Trustees David Gates and LaMont Johnson voted against the move.
The term is for four years and is pending contract negotiations.
Waronker said his unusual experience of transforming dysfunctional schools in impoverished neighborhoods, overturning traditional education models while achieving good academic results, and defusing gangs, made him an ideal fit for Hempstead.
“I have a unique skill set that I think is a perfect match for Hempstead, and I’m very hopeful and very excited to be able to use those skills and knowledge to bring the best possible education for Hempstead,” Waronker said in an interview with Newsday.
Toure said picking Waronker to head up the troubled school district shouldn’t come as a surprise to the community.
“The community is starving for results. The community is starving for a good education for our children,” Toure said. “I think our community is willing to open our arms to any change, any promise of change, any innovation of change. The community wants to educate our kids.”
After the vote, Gates said he was “appalled, and I am offended as a resident of this community that this community was not involved in the process.”
Some residents in the audience shouted at the trustees and drowned out the clerk’s reading of the resolution to hire Waronker. She was asked to read it again.
A protégé of former city schools Chancellor Joel Klein, Waronker first gained attention as an education reformer about a decade ago as principal of JHS 22 in the South Bronx. After his arrival, the school was removed from the city’s list of the most violent campuses and received an “A” on its city-issued annual report card.
He later formed the New American Initiative, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit, to spread his model. It emphasizes team-teaching, open classrooms, merit pay for teachers and higher salaries, while eliminating what he calls the “Prussian-Industrial” factory-like model in which teachers lecture to students in long rows of desks.
Waronker will take control of a district that has come under increased state scrutiny because of low academic performance and financial problems.
Both the high school and the middle school were placed under the state’s receivership program in 2015 because of low academic performance. If “demonstrable improvement” is not made within two years, the state can appoint an independent operator to control the schools.
The state Comptroller’s office in January listed Hempstead, along with the Wyandanch district, as facing the highest degree of fiscal stress for a nonurban district in the state.
Waronker replaces Superintendent Fadhilika Atiba-Weza, who took over on July 1.
The district held meetings with candidates and conducted a nationwide search. Waronker said he was contacted about a month ago, and school board members made site visits to his schools this week.
He said his model in the city works with funding of about $13,000 per pupil, whereas in Hempstead the figure is $25,000.
Waronker said he will largely give up his work at his foundation, with most duties taken over by a colleague, and devote himself full-time to Hempstead.
He expects there to be some resistance to the appointment of a Jewish Latino in a heavily African-American district, but said he has faced that before and overcome it.
“There’s always resistance and there’s always resistance to change,” he said. “But ultimately the results and the good work for the children, those things win out.”
He said he will reach out to all segments of the community, and “the fact that I am an immigrant from Chile, the fact that I speak Spanish, is going to be helpful with the large Hispanic population of the district. . . . I care deeply for the children and the results in my work show that, and I believe I can really help the children of Hempstead.”
With Bart Jones