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Long IslandEducation

Roosevelt Middle School gets off state list of ‘struggling’ schools

Roosevelt Middle School is being taken off the state Education Department's list of "struggling" schools and will shed its receivership status by June 30, officials said this week. Feb. 23, 2016. (Credit: Barry Sloan)

Roosevelt Middle School is being taken off the state Education Department’s list of “struggling” schools and will shed its receivership status by June 30, officials said this week.

That means all five of the district’s schools will be in “good standing” with the state, a designation that administrators in the 3,224-student system said it has not enjoyed in decades. Roosevelt was under state control from 2002 to 2013, the only public school district in New York history to be taken over.

Roosevelt educators were ecstatic at the development.

“We are very excited and this is very good news,” interim superintendent Marnie Hazelton said. “This is just the beginning of our journey.”

She credited “the hard work of the staff and the community,” saying teachers and other employees pulled 12- to 14-hour days and worked on weekends to bring up standards. The middle school had to satisfy certain criteria in an improvement plan it was required to submit to the Education Department.

Officials confirmed the middle school will be removed from receivership and the entire district is in good standing. In addition, officials confirmed that none of Roosevelt’s five schools will be listed as “priority” or “focus” schools when the agency releases its accountability list, which is expected Friday.

Roosevelt Middle School, with 423 students in the seventh and eighth grades, was one of four schools on Long Island designated as “struggling” in July under the new state receivership law adopted in April. The others were Ralph G. Reed Middle School in Central Islip, Alverta B. Gray Schultz Middle School in Hempstead and Milton L. Olive Middle School in Wyandanch.

Officials would not say whether any of the other middle schools would be removed from the list.

In working to right the middle school’s performance, principal Nateasha McVea said educators focused on its culture and structure. McVea has been principal for the past three years, since the district emerged from state control.

“We took a look at school culture and made it a point to make sure that what we did was student-focused,” she said, adding that the staff took a “team approach” to bolster instructional support in four core areas — English, math, social studies and science. They used building-wide academic data to target specific student needs and took advantage of partnerships the district has developed with community-based organizations and local universities, such as The College at Old Westbury.

District officials said they kept the Education Department informed of their progress.

For Roosevelt, the ability to satisfy the improvement requirements carries special meaning. During the years of state control, authorities in Albany named the district’s top administrators and approved its budgets.

The receivership law was the state’s first major attempt to intervene in local school management since the Roosevelt takeover. The middle school was one of 144 schools statewide placed under receivership — a term most often used in private bankruptcy cases.

Under the law, such schools are put under control of superintendents or other managers with special administrative powers. At least temporarily, superintendents have the same clout that a receiver later brought in from the outside would wield.

By the state’s definition, schools identified as “struggling” had fallen short of standards for three consecutive years. They are given two years to show improvement under their superintendents before further management steps are taken. Schools that do not demonstrate improvements in test scores and other criteria could be turned over to an outside manager.

One school on the Island, Hempstead High School, was designated as “persistently struggling,” a more severe category. That meant the school had failed to meet state and federal standards for at least a decade. “Persistently struggling” schools have one year to show progress under local superintendents before being turned over to outside managers.

Educators in Roosevelt succeeded in keeping Roosevelt High School from being placed in receivership in July, after Education Department officials were convinced by improvements in the graduation rate over the previous four years. That boosted the status of a school that had languished on state rosters of failing schools for more than 20 years.

District’s leaders also had petitioned the Education Department to repeal the middle school’s July designation as “struggling.”

However, as plans were under way, Deborah Wortham, Roosevelt’s first locally selected superintendent since the takeover ended, resigned in October to take the top job in upstate East Ramapo.

Hazelton, assistant superintendent for elementary education, was named to lead the system at an emergency board meeting. She first came to the district in 1996.

The interim district chief said she could not recall a time when all Roosevelt schools were held in good standing by the Education Department.

Over the years, individual Roosevelt schools have been among those given “priority” status on the state’s accountability lists — meaning that they rank within the bottom 5 percent academically of all schools statewide. An older system labeled districts and schools as “in need of improvement.”

“It was one school came off and another came on,” Hazelton said. “But now this news puts us in a better position to take the district to the next level.”

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