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Commissioner: Hempstead High School must show improvement

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

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said Tuesday she expects concrete academic improvement at Hempstead High School, one of two underperforming district schools that face strong scrutiny under the state's receivership law.

"We have to look carefully at what's happening with the senior class and how they progress and the number of students that would get diplomas," Elia said after meeting with district administrators, 14 students and other education officials -- her first visit to a state-designated struggling school on Long Island since becoming commissioner July 1.

Elia said she will examine data to gauge "how well students are doing in terms of passing their courses, ultimately passing exams, and then how well they do as a school in terms of getting all students through the graduation requirements."

Hempstead is the only district on Long Island with two schools under receivership. The 2,500-student high school is designated as "persistently struggling," meaning it has not met state and federal academic benchmarks for at least 10 years. Alverta B. Gray Schultz Middle School is categorized as "struggling" for failing to measure up for three consecutive years.

The receivership law -- passed in April with support from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo -- assigns special powers to superintendents for specified periods. Schools that don't improve would be wrested from superintendents' control and taken over by managers approved by school boards.

During the visit, Elia sought to highlight "what's working well" at the high school. She was joined by Roger Tilles, Long Island's representative on the state Board of Regents.

In a pleasant exchange with students from the ninth, 11th and 12th grades, she listened as they shared their aspirations and talked of concerns such as overcrowding, transportation, security, inclusion of immigrants in programs, and parent involvement.

Joselyn Alvarez, 17, the senior class president, said students need help to "become more aware of the future" and strive for graduation and a career.

"I feel that a lot of students are like stuck in a box, they're not really considering college," she said, adding that many need to be given "hope that they are worth something and they have the capability of becoming someone."

Moves under principal Stephen Strachan to streamline scheduling and have students wear uniforms drew praise from students, and nods from Elia.

Before Elia arrived, a small group of advocates and residents outside called on the commissioner to fire superintendent Susan Johnson rather than have her act as receiver.

"It's like putting the fox in the henhouse," said George Siberón, executive director of the Hempstead Hispanic Civic Association. He said the superintendent "is responsible for the district's bad outcomes and they're going to put her in charge."

Michael Fricchione, a district spokesman, defended Johnson, noting that she and others are trying to make changes. "Some people want to see the superintendent fail, when we are at the beginning of a turnaround."

Elia said she would not remove school officials "without great serious thought and a lot of information."

Tilles said he understands the residents' concerns.

"Hempstead's had a long history of some difficulties," he said. "The question of the superintendent having complete control this year is a legitimate question for people, but if the district does not improve this year, that superintendent only has six more months to improve" before "an outside educator" is brought in.

According to 2014 figures from the State Education Department, the latest available, only 43 percent of Hempstead High students graduated, with 4 percent of those getting advanced diplomas. At the middle school, eighth-graders' test results in English, math and science were far below state averages.

Other schools on Long Island identified as "struggling" are Ralph G. Reed School in Central Islip; Roosevelt Middle School in Roosevelt; and Milton L. Olive Middle School in Wyandanch.

Elia has visited other receivership schools in Buffalo and Yonkers.

James E. Clark, Hempstead's associate superintendent for secondary curriculum and instruction, said the meeting was an opportunity for education officials to hear directly from students, both on challenges ahead and efforts to improve.

"We plan to continue making changes," Clark said, noting that the middle school's receivership plan has been approved, but the high school's is being fine-tuned.

"We are proud of our students," he said, "and we are proud that we have a commissioner willing to come to Hempstead and ask tough questions and to be part of the solution."

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