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NY schools chief forming team to help 144 struggling schools

New York State's new education commissioner, MaryEllen Elia,

New York State's new education commissioner, MaryEllen Elia, gives a speech in Albany on July 22, 2015. Credit: Shannon DeCelle

The state's new schools chief is putting together a special team to help 144 struggling schools across New York that must increase academic achievement to avoid being put under the control of independent managers.

Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said she plans to name a leader for the "model" unit in four to six weeks. The office will deal with schools in 17 districts across New York identified as "persistently struggling" and "struggling" under a new state law.

"We can work with these school districts this year, hope they can make some changes," Elia said during a 90-minute meeting with reporters and editors at Newsday's Melville headquarters. "But if they don't, I am not shy about going in and saying, 'You've had your chance, you haven't done it.' And we are going to go in and do what we can do, and we are going to be successful."

Initially, the schools' district superintendents have been named as receivers -- giving them special powers to make changes, such as shifting principals and reallocating expenditures.

Schools on Long Island placed in receivership are Hempstead High School and Alverta B. Gray Schultz Middle School in the Hempstead district; Ralph G. Reed Middle School in Central Islip; Roosevelt Middle School in Roosevelt; and Milton L. Olive Middle School in Wyandanch.

Some elements of Elia's initiative already are underway.

Long Island administrators in charge of some receivership schools reported they have been assigned special email addresses and specific staff contacts within the Education Department so they can get timely responses to questions or problems.

"Access leads to success, and that's good news," said Deborah Wortham, superintendent in the Roosevelt district. "It's sort of like one-stop shopping."

Receivership is a sort of probationary status for the underperforming schools. The intent of the classification, embedded in the new law supported by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, is to give superintendents the leeway they need to improve instruction -- for example, by providing extra tutoring help to students who failed the state's Common Core tests.

Schools designated as "persistently struggling" have failed to meet academic benchmarks for at least 10 consecutive years, while "struggling" schools have been in that situation for three years. Hempstead High School is the only "persistently struggling" school on the Island.

If test scores and graduation rates do not improve within specific time frames -- one year for those that are "persistently struggling" and two years for "struggling" schools -- the schools can be placed under independent receivers named by local boards and approved by the Education Department.

Receivers can be chosen from the ranks of retired school administrators, college administrators or professional consultants. In extreme cases, such schools could be converted into independent charter schools.

A growing push by federal authorities to turn around failing schools has prompted states to consider a variety of new approaches, including receiverships. Many states, experts said, also are experimenting with new ways to cut red tape within their education departments to better monitor such schools.

Michael Griffith, a national authority on school turnarounds, said states often face the question of whether to staff new monitoring units with existing employees or to bring in outsiders. The first approach might save money but prove ineffective, he said, because current employees may not have had actual experience managing schools.

Griffith added that the movement toward creating separate monitoring units is so new that there is no model to point to with a "track record" of success.

With Joie Tyrrell

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