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Regents to schools: Improve or face conversion, takeover or closure

New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Ellia, talks

New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Ellia, talks to members of the state Board of Regents during a meeting at the State Education Department in Albany, N.Y., Monday, July 20, 2015. Credit: Hans Pennink

Public schools that are failing academically and do not show improvement within the next few years face a choice of shutting down or turning management over to State University of New York officials or charter school administrators, under regulations adopted Monday by a divided state Board of Regents.

The vote was 11 Regents in favor, with four abstaining. Those who abstained have voiced strong misgivings recently about the state's testing system, in which students' scores are a main element used to evaluate teacher and school performance.

State Education Department officials responsible for carrying out the new rules described as last resorts such actions as closing school buildings or converting them to charter schools. Those officials added, however, that forceful regulations are necessary to spur efforts by local school boards to reverse years of failure and to boost student test scores and graduation rates.

"Rest assured, that if the schools do not show demonstrable improvement, someone will come in under my authority and fix those schools," the state's new education commissioner, MaryEllen Elia, told a group of Buffalo school officials in a meeting Friday in that city. On Monday, Elia attended the Regents monthly meeting in Albany for the first time in her new position, which she assumed July 6.

The new regulations are aimed especially at schools the Education Department has placed in "priority" status, meaning that they rank within the bottom 5 percent academically of all schools statewide.

Currently, there are about a half-dozen such schools on Long Island. State officials said that some of those, such as Roosevelt High School and Roosevelt Middle School, have shown recent improvements and eventually may be removed from the list.

The Hempstead district also has two schools listed as "priority."

Lamont Johnson, president of Hempstead's school board, said trustees were meeting with the district's superintendent Monday night for a briefing on efforts to make academic improvements.

"I could say to the state, 'Give us more time to do better,' " Johnson said. He added that he cannot argue with officials who say the two schools are failing academically.

"I'm not happy with the performance," he said.

Hempstead High School and Alverta B. Gray Schultz Middle School were among five schools on Long Island that last week were placed under receivership, which carries special conditions for control, as stipulated in a state law enacted this spring.

The three other schools on the Island facing receivership are Roosevelt Middle School, Ralph G. Reed Middle School in Central Islip and Milton L. Olive Middle School in Wyandanch. Roosevelt High School was listed for potential receivership last month, but was given a reprieve last week by the Education Department because of improved graduation rates.

"Receivership" is a state designation, and all schools in that category also are in "priority" status, which is a federal term. The nomenclature gets more complicated still because the state is reviving another term, "Schools Under Registration Review," which dates back more than 20 years.

Under regulations approved Monday, "priority" schools that do not show academic improvement within a few years can be placed on "Registration Review" status. That gives the commissioner the ultimate authority to close the school, unless the local school board agrees to place the building under charter-school management or under control of SUNY or the City University of New York.

Education officials said, however, that any such action could not take place until the 2018-19 school year at the earliest. They added that a school might demonstrate adequate improvement during the first year or two of receivership by, say, retraining teachers or improving student attendance rates. Eventually, they added, such action would have to produce better test scores and graduation rates.


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