Mary Jones, superintendent of the Wyandanch School District, during an...

Mary Jones, superintendent of the Wyandanch School District, during an interview in Wyandanch on July 1, 2015. Credit: Ed Betz

New York on Thursday announced its first major drive to turn around failing public schools in more than a decade, placing 144 schools statewide -- including five on Long Island -- under receivership, but granting a last-minute reprieve to Roosevelt High School.

State Education Department officials said Roosevelt High's improved graduation rates kept it from being placed in receivership under the new law passed in April. The decision boosted the status of a school that had languished on previous state rosters of failing schools for more than 20 years.

The state lists two categories of schools in the new type of receivership control: "persistently struggling" and "struggling."

Schools designated as "persistently struggling" have failed to meet state and federal standards for at least a decade, and have one year to show progress under local superintendents before being turned over to outside managers. On the Island, Hempstead High School is in this category.

Schools identified as "struggling" have fallen short of standards for three consecutive years and have two more years to show improvement under superintendents before further management steps are taken. There are four such schools on the Island: Ralph G. Reed Middle School in Central Islip, Alverta B. Gray Schultz Middle School in Hempstead, Roosevelt Middle School and Milton L. Olive Middle School in Wyandanch.

The term "receivership," most often used in private bankruptcy cases, refers in this instance to schools that are placed under the control of superintendents or other managers with special administrative powers. Under law, superintendents temporarily have the same clout that a receiver later brought in from the outside would wield.

"In these schools, whole generations of students have been left behind," the state's new education commissioner, MaryEllen Elia, said in a prepared statement. Elia added that, having served as superintendent of a countywide school system in Florida that included the city of Tampa, she understands "how important it will be for superintendents to use their new authority to develop robust plans to improve student performance."

The current superintendents in the Island's districts with the failing schools will be their receivers, Education Department spokesman Jonathan Burman confirmed. They are Craig Carr in Central Islip, Susan Johnson in Hempstead, Deborah Wortham in Roosevelt and Mary Jones in Wyandanch.

New attempt to intervene

The receivership law, adopted in April, represents Albany's first significant attempt to intervene in local school management since 2002. That was the year lawmakers approved a direct takeover of the Roosevelt district -- the first and only such move in New York's history.

When the state's control ended in 2013, the district had more than $200 million worth of new and renovated school buildings, but chronically low student passage rates on state tests in grades 3-8 persisted. High school graduation rates improved, however.

Wortham, in a telephone interview Thursday, said Elia notified her Wednesday night of the state's decision not to place Roosevelt High under receivership. The commissioner congratulated the district for improving the school's graduation rates over the past four years, she said. The latest rate, recorded in August 2014, was 83 percent.

Last month, the state listed Roosevelt High as a potential candidate for "persistently struggling" status, but the district successfully appealed that designation.

"I am so excited for our students, for our staff, for our community," Wortham said. "When you are under a state takeover for 11 years, this demonstrates the importance of collaboration once you regain local control."

Doubts persist

Expert analysts and school officials alike now wonder whether Albany's latest attempt to shake up failing schools will produce any better results than before, or simply lead to disappointment. All the Island's schools on the state list, and the great majority of those elsewhere in the state, reflect the intertwined issues of poverty and segregated housing patterns -- problems that, experts said, remain unsolved nationwide.

"I just feel we're being set up for failure," said Nancy Holliday, a longtime Wyandanch school board trustee and a controversial community figure who formerly headed the library board.

Jones, superintendent in Wyandanch for about two years, said her district might well see better test scores at Olive Middle School if class time could be increased by an hour a day -- an approach authorized under the receivership law. Jones added, however, that such a move would cost an extra $570,000 a year, and that funding is nowhere in sight.

"We want to solve our problems ourselves here. We know what's wrong and we know how to correct it," Jones said. "But we need the resources to do that."

Michael Griffith, a national expert on state efforts to improve failing schools, observed that receiverships have worked well only in a limited number of cases. He is a consultant for the Education Commission of the States, an interstate education clearinghouse based in Denver.

"If a school is simply suffering from bad management, then a new group can come in and turn around a school in a fairly short time," Griffith said. "If a school's problems are long-range -- say, large amounts of poverty -- then nobody has found a solution to that."

Receivers' powers

On paper at least, New York State's new approach will greatly add to the administrative powers of Jones and other superintendents in districts with "persistently struggling" and "struggling" schools.

These superintendents, with status as temporary receivers, will be authorized to require principals and teachers to reapply for their jobs. They also can eliminate positions, and pass out promotions and raises to qualified staffers without school board permission.

Moreover, superintendents can extend the academic day in receivership schools, reallocate budgets, change curricula and, under certain circumstances, convert schools into independent charter academies.

There are limits on superintendents' powers. The new law specifically allows local school boards to fire those top administrators, even while they are serving as school receivers.

This provision could put superintendents in awkward situations as they try to turn around schools, analysts observed. Suppose, for example, that a superintendent wanted to replace a principal, but feared the reaction of school board members who were the principal's friends.

"It potentially puts the superintendent in a lose-lose position," said Robert Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. "He or she still works for a board, so the scenario could arise: Use the powers without support of the board and ruin that relationship, or get blamed for failing to act."

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who promoted the receivership law, originally envisioned a forceful statute modeled on one used in Massachusetts.

That state's receivership system has scored recent successes in the factory city of Lawrence, where test scores for students who are predominantly Hispanic have risen significantly over the past two years -- 13 percentage points in math proficiency, for example. Lawrence's state-appointed receiver, Jeffrey Riley, is a former Boston school administrator.

Cuomo, in pushing for a similar approach in New York State, cited statistics showing that 250,000 students statewide had attended failing schools over the past 10 years.

"It has to end," the governor declared.

New York's receivership law won adoption in April as part of a broader education package, but not exactly as Cuomo had proposed. State lawmakers negotiated a milder statute that will allow local school boards to choose receivers, rather than leaving the decision to the state education commissioner.

The outside receivers, should they be needed, could be chosen from the ranks of retired superintendents, administrators in other districts, college professors or leaders of nonprofit agencies, including charter schools.

Experts familiar with receivership systems in other states wonder whether New York's receivers, beholden to school boards for their appointments, can act independently in weeding out incompetent staff and finding replacements.

"The real question is, do they have the freedom to act, and do they use it?" said Nelson Smith, another expert on school turnaround efforts. He is a senior adviser to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, a nonprofit agency based in Chicago.

Since May, New York State's Education Department has sent a series of notifications to local districts likely to have schools on the receivership list. The alerts raised questions in some communities -- for instance, Hempstead and Roosevelt -- over whether superintendents now in place there should be given receiver powers.

Two weeks ago, the New York State Council of School Superintendents took the unusual step of defending Wortham, the Roosevelt superintendent, against local critics, noting that her district recently had been cited as one of 30 "districts of distinction" nationwide for its success in providing high school students with college credits. The citation came from District Administration magazine, a national trade publication for school managers.

The Education Department has scheduled a July 22-23 conference in Albany, where hundreds of local school officials and community representatives will get briefings on how receiverships are supposed to work.

In Central Islip, many residents were split on the issue.

One local parent, Alexandra Vallejo, who spoke with a Newsday reporter while attending a recent school board meeting, said she approves of the receivership concept.

"I am happy for this. Our kids could get more care before they go to the high school," said Vallejo, who works as a teacher's assistant in another district.

Another resident, Florence Joyner, who sat nearby, said she does not support receivership as long as it means that Carr, the district's longtime superintendent, will be directly in charge of the Reed School.

"He's been doing it for years and it hasn't changed, so why give it to him?" said Joyner, who serves as executive director of the Opportunities Industrialization Center of Suffolk, a nonprofit job-training agency in Amityville.

A spokeswoman for the district, Barbara LaMonica, said Carr would not comment on details of receivership until he attends the Education Department conference in Albany.

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