From left, Irvir Reyes, Axel Sanchez and classmates listen as...

From left, Irvir Reyes, Axel Sanchez and classmates listen as Maria Calderon teaches English as a Second Language in Hempstead High School's "bridge" summer program on Aug. 6, 2015. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Hempstead High School made “demonstrable improvement” during the 2015-16 academic year, avoiding the prospect of being put under control of an independent manager known as a receiver, state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia announced Wednesday.

Hempstead High was among nine schools in New York designated as “persistently struggling” — and the only one on Long Island — that the Education Department cited as making progress under the receivership system launched by the state in July 2015.

A tenth such school, a junior high school in the Bronx, did not make adequate improvements and will be subject to a change in management within 60 days.

In Hempstead, school administrators and members of a reform coalition that last spring gained a majority on the five-member school board hailed Albany’s decision and pledged to make more progess during the current academic year.

The 8,000-student district has been troubled for years by gang violence and political interference in school management, but many residents see signs of what they hope marks the beginning of a turnaround.

“I’m happy,” said Maribel Touré, who was named board president in July. “It’s a lot of hard work that we have to do, but one step at a time.”

Persistently struggling schools are defined as those in the bottom 5 percent statewide for the previous 10 years. Under the state’s receivership law — an initiative of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo — the Education Department and school districts jointly select a minimum of 10 indicators of improvement as their goals for each academic year.

Goals are relatively modest.

Hempstead High, for example, was directed to boost its graduation rate to 45 percent of students in the Class of 2016. It achieved a 52 percent rate. In 2015, the school’s graduation rate was listed by the state as 42 percent, compared with a state average of 78 percent.

About 2,300 students attend the school. In Education Department data for the 2014-15 school year, the most recent publicly available, 61 percent of students were classified as economically disadvantaged and the populace was 63 percent Latino and 35 percent African-American.

Fadhilika Atiba-Weza, who became the district’s interim superintendent in July, praised the high school principal, Stephen Strachan, for progress achieved so far. Atiba-Weza added that he hopes for accelerated upgrades in the future.

“Those targets are very low targets,” said the superintendent, a veteran educator with more then 30 years’ experience in New York City and Long Island schools. “But you know, they don’t satisfy me, they don’t satisfy the parents. We need to strive to reach higher levels.”

The superintendent and other school leaders listed several new programs as contributing to Hempstead High’s upswing in performance:

  • Professional trainers have been brought in from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore to support local administrators and teachers.
  • Some classes in core subjects such as English, math and science have been extended from 40 minutes to 70 minutes to allow students more time to absorb lessons.
  • Summer “bridge” programs have been offered to help high school students struggling with classwork, as well as middle school students deemed not wholly prepared for ninth grade.

Residents cited political change as a major factor in improving the academic climate as well. Over the past three years, three new board trustees describing themselves as fiscal watchdogs — Touré, Gwendolyn Jackson and Melissa Figueroa — have been elected to the panel, promising to keep a close eye on hiring in a district once rife with political patronage.

“It’s a step forward with new reform candidates who have begun turning around the school district,” said Lucas Sánchez, Long Island director of New York Communities for Change, a nonprofit agency that works with schools in low-income neighborhoods on the Island and in New York City.

Philip Mickulas, a 46-year resident of Hempstead Village, voiced hope that local school administrators now will pursue constructive changes without fear of political meddling.

“I’m glad that the new board will have an opportunity to bear down without outside interference,” said Mickulas, who formerly headed an agency that provided the district with space for preschool classes. He now is retired.

Elia, referring to the schools that have shown demonstrable improvement, said in a statement, “There is much more to be done, but we are pleased with the turnaround that has started.”

Four other schools on the Island — Ralph G. Reed Middle School in Central Islip, Alverta B. Gray Schultz Middle School in Hempstead, Roosevelt Middle School in Roosevelt and Milton L. Olive Middle School in Wyandanch — were among more than 130 statewide designated last year as “struggling.” Roosevelt Middle School was removed from the list in February and shed its receivership status in June.

Schools classified as “struggling” have two years to show improvement before they run the risk of being turned over to independent receivers.

Progress at Hempstead High School

Here are examples of how Hempstead High School met or exceeded annual targets for academic improvement under the state’s receivership program:

  • 52 percent of the Class of 2016 graduated on time after four years of high school. Target was 45 percent.
  • 11 percent of Class of 2016 earned Regents diplomas with advanced designation, signifying successful completion of extra courses in math and science. Target was 7 percent.
  • 49.3 percent of students in designated cohort earned five academic credits annually. Target was 38 percent.
  • 37 percent of students in designated cohort passed Regents math exams with scores of 65 or better. Target was 26 percent.
  • Curriculum improved; more extended learning time provided during school days.

Source: State Education Department

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