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Glen Cove school board defends its teachers

Students arrive before the start of class at

Students arrive before the start of class at the Landing School in Glen Cove. (Sept. 16, 2013) Credit: Steve Pfost

The Glen Cove school board said Monday it supports its teachers and is trying to protect the interests of the district after a board-commissioned investigation found teachers at two elementary schools supplied students with correct answers, darkened answer forms for them, or urged them to reconsider their responses on state tests in spring 2012.

"Since the allegations first surfaced nearly one year ago, the district has relied upon guidance and direction from its legal team, the state Education Department and the Nassau County district attorney," said the board's statement, posted on the district's website. "There have been many eyes on these proceedings, multiple entities involved, and it has taken much longer than we would have liked.

"Your school board is doing everything it can to protect the interests of the district, those who have been accused and those who may offer testimony in the confidential hearings, including relatively young students," the statement said. "It's critically important that we get this right."

Newsday obtained a copy of the report and on Sunday published a story on its findings.

The school board hired the law firm Guercio & Guercio in November to conduct the independent probe after allegations arose that teachers at Connolly and Landing elementary schools coached fifth-graders during administration of state English language arts and mathematics exams in spring 2012. The report was written by one of the firm's attorneys and was completed in mid-March.

Of 60 students interviewed, 84.7 percent "indicated they received inappropriate staff-directed assistance" on one or both of the exams, the report said. It also detailed state regulations and requirements governing test-taking and how the teachers were alleged to have violated those rules.

Twenty-two teachers at the two schools, which serve grades three through five, and the schools' principals were named in the report. The newspaper did not publish the names of the teachers or any identifying information about any of the students who were interviewed.

Each of the teachers named in the report "denied, outright, having either provided or witnessed inappropriate staff-directed assistance to students or otherwise failing to comply with the governing rules and procedures" for the tests' administration, the document said.

Earlier this month, the district's lawyer said that administrative proceedings relating to the allegations had begun.

The board's statement Monday noted the proceedings are "closed hearings that are being held before an impartial hearing officer selected through the state Education Department" in accordance with state law.

"Be sure of this: We have faith in our teachers and believe that they have the best interests of Glen Cove students and learning at heart," the statement said. "However, we remain firm in standing up for the integrity of our school district by continuing to address this challenge objectively and factually to achieve appropriate and responsible resolution."

Monday morning, Superintendent Maria Rianna stood in front of the Connolly school, greeting parents and students. She said she routinely visits district campuses "to make sure the students have a good day."

Glen Cove Mayor Ralph Suozzi said Monday that the report’s findings concern him.

“While I have not seen this report, as a leader and parent I am of course disturbed by the allegations,” Suozzi said. “I believe it is imperative that the school district and the state Education Department conclude this investigation promptly and take measures to ensure that any real or perceived issues are corrected, so that we can all move forward and focus on our community’s most important asset, our children.”

Assemb. Charles Lavine (D-Glen Cove) said Monday he believes what is alleged to have happened in Glen Cove's schools is commonplace.

"I do not believe that even in the worst-case scenario that what is described in Glen Cove doesn't go on in every other school district" around the country, he said. "Glen Cove is not unique."

Parents who were bringing their children to the Connolly and Landing schools, when asked about the accusations detailed in the report, blamed the system and mostly defended the teachers.

Lily Wiesner, who has twins at Landing, said she has a hard time believing the findings.

"I've only had the best experiences with the teachers," she said.

Peter and Liz Holden, who have two children at Connolly, said the tests put teachers in a tough spot.

"I just think the teachers really didn't have a choice," Peter Holden said. "The curriculum shifted so rapidly to a higher level that they had to do two years in a single year."

Of the report's finding that students were given inappropriate help, he said, "Is it right? No, it's not right. But it's understandable."

Liz Holden said, "There was a lot of pressure from above," referring to the state's emphasis on test performance.

Jessica Starke, who has two children at the Landing school, said she supports teachers 100 percent. She was critical of standardized testing overall.

"It's ridiculous," she said of the testing. "I have all the faith in the world in the teachers."

The report described how the accusations of improprieties came to light after the parents of a sixth-grader, a special needs student at Finley Middle School, told school officials in October that their daughter's math score on a spring 2012 state test seemed out of step with her classroom achievement.

Soon after, teachers at Finley told Principal Nelson Iocolano that sixth-grade students coming from Connolly were performing poorly in school and had an "exorbitant need for extra help." A subsequent review of those students' spring 2012 test results showed significant increases in their math scores, which led to further checks of students' test performance.

The district faces separate allegations of test-changing on 2012 Regents exams at Glen Cove High School. Those accusations were not addressed in the Guercio & Guercio report.

Two separate probes of the alleged test-fixing at the two elementary schools and the high school are pending -- one by the Education Department and the other by Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice, whose office served subpoenas upon the district in April.

With Gary Dymski

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