For teachers and students, September brings a fresh start. For children, it is a new school year with new clothes, books and friends. For teachers, there are fresh faces and excited learners. Whatever previous problems, the new school year is always going to be better, at least that is the hope.
These expectations may be true for almost every school district on Long Island, but they are definitely not true for children and teachers in Hempstead. This was a devastating summer for the district, following a distressing school year, following decades of failing the community’s children.
With more than 8,000 students, Hempstead is the largest K-12 school district in Nassau County. While located in the suburbs, its schools are expected to deal with the problems faced by large urban minority school districts. Almost every student is Latino or black, 70 percent of its student population is from economically disadvantaged families, and 40 percent are English language learners. The four-year high school graduation rate is less than half the state average. Higher-performing students from more economically stable families in Hempstead are pulled out of the public school system to attend charter schools and local religious schools.
For most of the summer, the Hempstead school board was distracted from educational issues by efforts to oust a suspended superintendent hired by a previous school board majority. It passed a motion to fire Shimon Waronker on trumped-up charges that even if substantiated, would not be grounds for breaking his contract. Waronker, instead of working to improve education in Hempstead schools, spent his summer fighting back in court.
Jack Bierwirth, a special adviser to the school district, said this summer that improving management and student performance in the district would be a “five- to 10-year challenge.” Bierwirth essentially acknowledged that the state Education Department is prepared to sacrifice the future of a generation of Hempstead children to inadequate education.
In a report to state officials, Bierwirth outlined 10 areas where “progress” was supposedly made. Significantly, he did not discuss student instruction and performance, the heart of education, until point six, and even there, his report is misleading. Bierwirth was pleased with the number of new Advanced Placement offerings in the high school. But that misses the point in a district with less than a 1 percent passing rate. Students are being programmed for classes and exams for which they are unprepared. Passing rates on the less-demanding state Regents exams in social studies and science, required for graduation, hover at about 40 percent.
The extreme problems in the district are documented in a new CBS special news report. It shows a history of political infighting, administrative incompetence, academic failure, gang violence, corruption, and legal controversies. Bierwirth and state education officials need to examine the CBS report before releasing any more fanciful claims for improvement.
In sixth grade, students read about the myths of Ancient Greece. According to legend, Zeus, king of the Greek gods, used lightning bolts to signal his displeasure. If the myths are true, Zeus must be especially angry with the district.
In August, a lightning bolt struck the roof of Hempstead’s Prospect Elementary School. The fire and fire department efforts to contain it damaged eight rooms, a hallway, the ceiling, and the ventilation system. The district contracted to send the students to another building for the duration of school year.
Hempstead’s children cannot wait for another lightning strike or five to 10 years for the state to act and take over the Hempstead school district.
Alan J. Singer is a professor of teaching, learning and technology and the director of the social studies education program at Hofstra University.