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Officials from failing schools summoned to Albany conference

Mary Jones, superintendent of the Wyandanch School District,

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

The state has summoned representatives of 17 school districts, including four on Long Island, to Albany Wednesday and Thursday for training in how to turn around schools that are academically failing.

The two-day conference is for districts with schools the State Education Department has designated as being in receivership. Those schools face the prospect of being placed under outside managers known as receivers unless they start improving instruction and student engagement within the next year or two.

A total of 144 schools statewide were included on the receivership list the Education Department released last week. Most of those schools are located in New York City, Buffalo and other urban areas. Five are in four Long Island districts -- Central Islip, Hempstead, Roosevelt and Wyandanch.

"I believe this is a step in the right direction," said Mary Jones, the Wyandanch superintendent, who plans to attend the conference with other district representatives.

Still, Jones, like many other local school leaders, questioned how districts such as hers will pay for the extra teacher training and other steps that may be needed to turn schools around. Wyandanch's Milton L. Olive Middle School is on the receivership list.

A new state law, adopted last month, provides $75 million over the next two years for schools in receivership that have failed to meet state and federal academic standards for 10 years or more. No extra money is provided for schools in receivership where academic failure has been of shorter duration.

Hempstead High School is the only school on the Island among the five involved that is eligible for a share of the $75 million.

State education officials said they hope to convince local school leaders that academic turnarounds can be achieved with existing funds in many cases.

"There may be opportunities within districts to reimagine how school funding is used to improve," said Ira Schwartz, the state's assistant education commissioner for school accountability.

A school finance expert, Stephen Frank, is due to address the conference Wednesday afternoon. Frank is a partner in Education Resource Strategies, a nonprofit consulting agency based in Watertown, Massachusetts.

Frank said research has found that school districts in New York State are relatively well-staffed compared with districts serving communities with similar costs-of-living in other parts of the country. The average difference adds up to about nine extra staff workers per 500 students in New York schools, he added.

Moreover, research shows the amount of noninstructional time -- such as time that teachers spend on planning -- is about 40 percent greater in New York schools than elsewhere.

These differences, Frank said, provide New York schools with the potential for greater flexibility in the way they assign teachers to classes. For example, he said, schools might shift teachers to work with smaller groups of students during key lessons in reading and math.

Frank cautioned, however, that any such changes have to be broadly acceptable to districts and their staffs in order to work, and cannot be imposed from the outside.

"We're just giving examples of what schools chose to do," he said.

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