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Defying odds and overcoming obstacles

The exterior of Hempstead High School as seen

The exterior of Hempstead High School as seen on July 10, 2018. Credit: Danielle Silverman

The Hempstead school district seems to be in the news every day — with critics making their case by citing misinformation and half-truths. They call the district one of the most troubled on Long Island and across the state, without giving proper context. Meanwhile, the district is rarely given a chance to present the facts without being drowned out by the crescendo of criticism. The critics are stuck in the past, and we choose to not stay there with them.

The ones who pay the price are Hempstead students. But we will not cave to the skeptics who believe the district is failing students. Instead, we will continue to give our students the education they deserve to succeed. Our teachers and staff also are under scrutiny despite being among the hardest working in our area. There is little focus by critics, if any, on the efforts to turn everything around in the district.

For the past three years, our valedictorians and salutatorians have been accepted by and attended Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Columbia and New York universities. This year’s graduation rate increased by 20 percent compared with June 2017. Three elementary schools formerly on the state Education Department’s list of low performers — David Paterson, Jackson Main and Front Street — are off state lists. We are improving in key academic areas, and by demolishing the aged Marguerite G. Rhodes School, we will be able to build a new elementary school on that site.

To ensure that these successes are exceeded in the future, the district is the first public or private school on Long Island to implement the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program, while also increasing the number of students enrolled in Advanced Placement courses.

The broad-stroked figure “37%,” which refers to the district’s graduation rate in 2017, ignores the fact that Hempstead experienced a significant influx of English language-learning students included in our graduation cohorts — more than 1,900 new students from 2014 to 2017. In three years, Hempstead received 30 percent of our then-existing enrollment.  In August 2014, Hempstead enrolled 900 English language learners with no time to prepare, and most important, with no additional funding. Despite not being familiar with our public education system, the students were classified as mostly juniors or seniors because of their ages. Yet their academic knowledge placed some of them around the middle-school level. Still, we tried to prepare them, sometimes in a few months, to pass their courses and exams while they were still learning English. And they continued to be reflected in the 37 percent graduation rate.

When considering the issue of funding, we must focus on the state’s flawed Foundation Aid Formula. Instead of increasing funding based on the number of students with special needs, English language learners, and federal Title I eligibility as needing additional services and instruction, the formula provides increases for per-pupil spending for wealthy districts that do not need more state funds. According to state Education Department data, the Jericho School District spent more than $41,000 per student in 2015-16 compared with Hempstead’s $23,400 per pupil. And when you add the $11 million increase in state funds to charter schools, which helped deplete funding for district schools, how could anyone argue that the district’s problems stem from the board of education? 

The State Legislature approved a three-person monitoring panel to fix our school district’s finances. We wish our local elected officials — Assemb. Taylor Darling and State Sen. Kevin Thomas — had focused more on learning about the substance of the district’s challenges instead of on legislation that does nothing to help our students. What is necessary is the constitutionally required level of funding from the state to offset disparities in local property wealth and student need. However, disparities in student population and funding do nothing to discourage reports that cite the 37 percent figure without context, or those detractors who often compare apples to oranges while pretending to address the issues at hand.

To those people, we say: If you really want to be a part of our progress, then work with us, not against us.

The writers are members of the Hempstead school board.