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Hope and expectation in rebounding Roosevelt school district

Roosevelt High School students who got their diplomas

Roosevelt High School students who got their diplomas in a summer graduation march to the ceremony on Monday, Aug. 21, 2017. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Educators in the Roosevelt schools have an optimistic new slogan — “Good to Great . . . A Roosevelt Renaissance” — reflecting an upswing for a system once so troubled that the state took it over.

The district, which was under state control from 2002 through 2013, just received its highest credit rating ever, officials said. As classes start Tuesday, none of its five schools is on a state watch list for academic or fiscal concerns. And educators there expressed confidence that the high school will have a 100 percent graduation rate by 2020.

“My expectation for the school year is nothing less than another phenomenal year. We are making gains in all areas,” said Superintendent Marnie Hazelton, a longtime Roosevelt educator who became the district’s top administrator in 2015.

The system, which state figures show has a projected enrollment of 3,700 for 2017-18, has struggled financially and academically for decades. During the takeover — the first ever or since of a local district — state officials and their appointees supplanted the school board and ran the system starting in 2002, approving budgets and appointing superintendents.

The time span saw some academic progress amid an influx of more than $300 million in state money to upgrade facilities and programs. The system is one of the poorest among Nassau County’s 54 districts in terms of personal income, and 47 percent of its students qualified for free or reduced lunch in 2015-16, the most recent Education Department figures available.

The challenges did not end when the state relinquished control. Even after that, individual Roosevelt schools were among those given “priority” status on the state’s accountability lists, meaning that they ranked within the bottom 5 percent academically of all schools statewide.

In 2015, Roosevelt Middle School was designated as “struggling” and placed in receivership status by the state Education Department. After demonstrating improvements, it was removed from that list and shed receivership status in July 2016, a cause for celebration by residents, staff and school officials alike.

“We see promising signs in Roosevelt with regard to both academic achievement and fiscal stability,” Education Department spokesman Jonathan Burman said. “After years of poor performance, the district’s schools are doing better and their accountability status has improved as a result of sustained hard work by teachers, students and the community. But there is still much to do in Roosevelt, and the department remains committed to working with them to improve student outcomes in their schools.”

Roosevelt, among other systems on Long Island with large numbers of Latino students, has seen an influx of immigrant children who arrived in the district between September 2016 and June, Hazelton said.

According to data provided by the district, 219 immigrant students enrolled this past school year, including 37 students designated as having an interrupted formal education.

Some of those were unaccompanied minors, students ages 17 and younger, mostly from Central American countries, who entered the United States illegally and were resettled with relatives or sponsors while awaiting the outcome of immigration proceedings.

Funding was allocated to establish an English Language Learner-Bilingual Saturday Academy where students received three hours of instruction, divided into two sections focusing on English and an introduction to math and beginning algebra.

Starting last year, the district emphasized graduation to the incoming Class of 2020, Hazelton said, accelerating academics at the middle school, providing mentoring opportunities for students and supplying underclassmen with a step-by-step video guide on graduation requirements.

Recently released test scores for grades three through eight have shown improvement, but still remain below the state average. The June high school graduation rate in 2016 was 64.4 percent, according to the district, well below the Long Island average of 88.9 percent.

Officials at the high school have stated a goal of a 100 percent graduation rate by 2020, with a focus not just on academics but social and emotional learning.

In August, Moody’s Investors Services increased the district’s general obligation rating from BAA1 to A3, saying it reflects “an improved financial position and track record of structural balance.” It was the third consecutive rating increase since the district, once millions in debt, came out from under state control.

Hazleton said the district’s fiscal adviser said the system is in its best financial shape in at least 25 years.

Alfred E. Taylor, president of the school board, said that Moody’s noted the district’s stability in leadership.

“We are starting to show more consistency on our administrators,” said Taylor, who was elected to the board in 2011. “It had been a revolving door when it came to our central administration.”

Parent Ann S. Hickson, 42, a graduate of the district, said she has noticed improvement in recent years and appreciates that administrators are communicating with and including residents.

“If you don’t know the people and don’t know the situation, it makes situations worse,” she said.

Her son, Shamon Lawrence, 16, participated in a liberal arts camp this summer and is starting the 11th grade. Hickson has a 22-year-old son who also is a Roosevelt graduate.

“The school has been drastically improving,” she said.

Taylor said others in the community have taken notice.

“This ‘Roosevelt Renaissance’ has actually become viral,” he said. “People are looking at Roosevelt as a force and a place to live.”

Back to school for 2017-18

  • Tuesday is the largest back-to-school day on Long Island, with 70 public school districts holding opening days. That includes grades 10-12 in the William Floyd district in Mastic Beach, Moriches and Shirley, where other grades started on Friday.
  • Forty-four districts begin classes Wednesday.
  • Five districts start Thursday.
  • Classes began last week in six districts, including the younger William Floyd grades.

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