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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Pressure is on for Hempstead High's principal

Stephen Strachan, Hempstead High School principal.

Stephen Strachan, Hempstead High School principal. Credit: Mike Fricchione

Stephen Strachan stands in a hallway in Hempstead High School. He's a commanding figure, and not just because he's 6-foot-4. He has presence, and right now it's amplified by the bullhorn in his hand.

It's early in the new school year, and he's mixing barked-out instructions with hands-on advice. One girl, a ninth-grader, wants out of global history. Strachan is pleasant but firm. The class is required, he says. She protests again.

"I'm the principal," Strachan responds. "Trust me."

He might as well be talking to the entire high school. To the whole community, actually. He arrived on the job in November. In July, he got a deadline for improving one of Long Island's most chronically poor-performing schools: one year.

Hempstead High is the only local school labeled "persistently struggling" by the state Education Department, meaning it's missed benchmarks for at least 10 years. If it doesn't improve this school year, it will be put under the control of an independent receiver.

Strachan has a plan. Now he's asking for trust. And patience. Because what he's trying to change is a culture.

"It's going to take a little time," he says, seated behind his office desk. "But it'll be good." He laughs knowingly.

Strachan has done this before. As principal for five years at Jordan High School in Watts, one of the toughest, most gang-ridden neighborhoods in Los Angeles, he raised test scores and college attendance. At Roosevelt High School, he presided over steadily rising graduation rates, the primary reason that school won an appeal to not be placed into receivership.

His reforms include a dress code -- blue or white shirts, black or beige pants -- that teachers say already is influencing behavior. There's also a summer program for incoming ninth-graders to help smooth their transition; small learning communities of several hundred students centered around themes like business and entrepreneurship, while emphasizing English language arts and math; and college and university partnerships.

He calls the reforms scaffolding. The analogy is apt. But teachers are wary. This is the fourth change in philosophy in six years. On the other hand, something has to change. Staying the course is madness.

Joselyn Alvarez, 17, senior class president and lifelong Hempstead resident, has seen many changes that haven't worked. This feels different.

She likes Strachan's vision, that "we should value ourselves and become something we want to become." She harbors a secret hope, that 85 percent of her class graduates. "That's always been a dream," she says softly.

Strachan says success would indeed be a higher graduation rate -- it was 43 percent in 2014 -- better student and staff attendance, and fewer suspensions.

"It's a very difficult process," he says. Mistakes are inevitable. "We're not married to anything that doesn't work."

And this needs to work, for more reasons than a state deadline. Too many generations of kids in Hempstead have been lost. But these kinds of turnarounds often hinge on the force of personality. Can the leader inspire belief? Strachan knows that.

"To try to get buy-in from people is always a challenge," he says. "It's not just, 'Embrace the concept.' There have been a lot of broken promises."

Ivehonor Boyd, a 15-year-old junior, is a believer. "I wouldn't have come to the school after all the things I heard, but he came and gave us a chance," she says. "He's awesome."

Classes begin to change again. Strachan bolts from his desk and grabs the bullhorn.

"Let's go, let's move," he says as he directs hallway traffic.

One boy, confused by his schedule, approaches. "Come with me," Strachan says, guiding the boy into his office.

That's what this really is all about: Come with me.

Michael Dobie is a member of the Newsday editorial board.