When local state legislators were lobbying Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to sign a bill creating a strong monitor position for the Hempstead school district last year, they reached out to Long Island educators and other power players to write letters to Cuomo supporting the plan.
One of those letters pleading that Hempstead get this help came from Rockville Centre Schools Superintendent William Johnson.
On July 1, Johnson will fill that position, created earlier this year when Cuomo and legislators finally came together on the details.
It’s a high-profile and high-stakes role for the 75-year old who is about to leave the Rockville Centre job after 34 years as superintendent, a postponement of retirement that will surprise no one. The question buzzing about has been what job Johnson would take of the many on offer, not whether he’d hang it up.
The legislation giving Hempstead a state monitor who, along with the state education commissioner, will exercise broad new powers, was necessary because the district faces so many challenges.
Hempstead, in 2019, had a 57% graduation rate. That represented a significant improvement over its numbers (it was 44% in 2017) but a huge lag behind the state average of 89%.
This new round of state oversight says the monitor will "provide oversight, guidance, and technical assistance related to the educational and fiscal policies, practices, programs and decisions of the school district, board of education, and superintendent." The state ed commissioner could overrule any decisions made by a monitor.
So why does Johnson want this challenge?
“I see so many good things that are already going on in Hempstead, and I believe it’s worth the time and effort to try and help them keep improving,” Johnson said in an interview Thursday.
Hempstead’s student body is 97% minority and 75% economically disadvantaged. Rockville Centre, while far less challenged, is not exclusively wealthy or white. It’s 21% black or Hispanic, with 15% of students receiving free or reduced lunch.
And Johnson was known for bringing rigor to students of all backgrounds, most notably at South Side High School. There Johnson and former principal Carol Burris made a tough International Baccalaureate program the learning track for all students. The district did the same with a high-rigor track for middle-school students, and in both cases achievement and test scores increased significantly.
“What has always struck me about students is that when they are challenged with rigor, they respond,” Johnson said. “Students rise to the level of our expectations.”
Johnson said he needs to study the district to see what can be done. Two years of reports from Jack Bierwirth, who served as Hempstead’s “distinguished educator” before the more powerful monitor role was created, will help. Johnson also said he has no intention of trying to order change from on high: “This has to be collaborative, not top down.”
“This is extraordinarily good news for Hempstead’s students and families,” Long Island Board of Regents representative Roger Tilles said. “Bill Johnson brings so much to this position, and he won’t be afraid to do what’s necessary to spark meaningful, systemic improvement.”