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Hempstead schools chief: Middle school can avoid state takeover

Hempstead schools Superintendent Shimon Waronker speaks during a

Hempstead schools Superintendent Shimon Waronker speaks during a public hearing at the Alverta B. Gray Schultz Middle School in Hempstead on Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017. Credit: John Roca

In both English and Spanish, Hempstead Schools Superintendent Shimon Waronker said he is optimistic that the 7,500-student district’s troubled middle school can stave off a state-directed takeover.

To show progress made, Waronker touted an interim agreement between the district and its teachers as a step in the right direction.

“The middle school is sort of in the balance,” he told about 75 people attending the first of two public meetings this week, at Alverta B. Gray Schultz Middle School, Wednesday night.

He said the 1,400-student school could be converted to a charter school if the state commissioner of education decides it has not yet met benchmarks to keep it from falling into independent receivership.

“I asked the commissioner that I want the school to remain [out of independent receivership]),” he added, saying he had met with Commissioner MaryEllen Elia recently, and she viewed the pact between teachers and the district as a positive sign of progress.

“We’ve hired a new principal,” Waronker said. “We have all sorts of really good plans of moving forward and the commissioner was very amenable . . . so I don’t think it’ll go there.”

Waronker set the meeting so he could address the public, present his proposals and answer questions about the direction he is taking the district.

Most of the attendees were teachers and administrators, but a few parents and students were present for presentations including charts showing how well the middle school has performed compared to other Long Island schools and a video on the merits of so-called community schools that provide students with wraparound services of support.

Waronker, who began his post in early June, also introduced the new principal of the middle school, Adrian Manuel, an 18-year veteran educator who began his post in early July and who previously worked with the superintendent in in New York City schools.

Manuel said Alverta B. Gray Schultz had met 64 percent of the benchmarks since the state in 2015 identified it as a “struggling school.”

Schools labeled as “struggling” have fallen short of standards for three consecutive years, and they have two years to show improvement under their own superintendents before further management steps can be implemented, including being turned over to an outside, independent manager.

Late last year, state education officials released data showing Alverta B. Gray Schultz had met six of 11 academic requirements, including for school safety, school suspension rate and chronic absenteeism. But it fell short in categories related to teacher attendance, and scores for math, science and English Language Arts exams in grades 3 through 8.

Hempstead High School was cast by the state in 2015 as a “persistently struggling” school, defined as one that has not met state and federal standards for at least the previous 10 years.

Waronker did not address the high school’s status, but state education department officials said that it, as well as the middle school and Wyandanch’s Milton L. Olive Middle School, the only other “struggling” school on Long Island, must make “demonstrable improvement” based on 2016-17 school year results to avoid being placed under independent receivers approved by the commissioner.

Questions from the audience ranged from security concerns to internet access to teacher salary increases, which Waronker said would be funded by a state Persistently Struggling School Grant.

Betsy Leibu, president of the 525-member Hempstead Classroom Teachers Association, said she was encouraged by Waronker’s approach, and particularly the memorandum agreement in effect for middle and high school teachers for the 2017-2018 academic year. The teachers have been working without a contract since 2013, she said.

“It’s a collaborative effort now,” she said, adding that the memorandum of agreement was approved by nearly 100 percent of the people who cast votes, though it was a small portion of the full membership because the vote took place in the summer. “It’s no longer being told ‘this is what’s going to happen to you.’”

The teachers’ contract expired in 2013.

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