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Hempstead schools need bold action

Students arrive at Barack Obama Elementary School on

Students arrive at Barack Obama Elementary School on Friday, Jan. 19, 2018 in Hempstead. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Almost 100 percent of the Hempstead school district’s 6,000 students are black or Latino. Sixty-two percent are from poor families. About a fourth of its middle school students pass state assessments. The high school graduation rate is barely 50 percent. Fewer than 1 in 7 high school graduates is considered college-ready.

Once again, New York State officials are abdicating their responsibility to educate children in poorer, minority communities. Instead of taking over the Hempstead district and implementing a reorganization, the state Education Department has issued threats but left governance up to a barely functioning and politically divided school board. The recent school board election solidified the power of one of the school board factions, but as in the past, their victory may only be temporary.

Some developments since January make clear the district is simply unable to resolve issues and provide a quality education for its children, including:

  • A new school board majority suspended Superintendent Shimon Waronker, who received a multiyear contract from the previous board majority. He is suing in for reinstatement.
  • The new board majority fired two administrators brought into the district by Waronker: high school principal Kenneth Klein, a former assistant principal for guidance in North Babylon, and Deputy Superintendent Varleton McDonald, a retired NYC administrator who was Waronker’s mentor when Waronker worked for the New York City schools.
  • The Hempstead board replaced Klein with former high school principal Stephen Strahan, who previously was replaced for allegedly covering the recalibration of grades to make school performance look better.
  • State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and Chancellor Betsy Rosa visited the Hempstead district in January and in individual meetings pressured board members to resolve differences and get the district functioning. According to Elia, the state would not be “second guessing” district officials. That is exactly what it should be doing!
  • State auditors reported last week that as a result of what they called “poor record-keeping,” but what might actually turn out to be falsification, the district “highly exaggerated” the number of high school students making satisfactory progress toward their degrees.

The district’s problems are decades old, with roots in political shenanigans, but also in the challenges of educating young people. Many students come from immigrant families for whom English is a second language, live in deteriorated housing and have low incomes. Many are preyed on and tempted by gangs. Unfortunately, to my knowledge, no individual district in the United States has successfully addressed these kinds of social problems.

In our nation, the responsibility for educating children is reserved to the states, with federal and local participation. However, after trying to turn around the Roosevelt district for more than 10 years, with minimal improvement and at great cost, the state does not want to take responsibility for educating the children of Hempstead. In Roosevelt, New York education officials basically declared success and left. Meanwhile, student scores on state exams remain far below state averages, especially in the middle school.

Given what we learned after the state takeover of Roosevelt schools, here are ways to help Hempstead and other Long Island schools overcome similar challenges:

First, the state must suspend the nonresponsive Hempstead school board and take over the district. The state should appoint a seasoned administrator with authority to oversee the district. Cooperative current school board members and others in the community could be appointed to an advisory council.

Second, the state should institute the Jericho standard for school funding. According to the State Education Department, Property Tax Report Cards, in 2015-16, the Jericho district spent more than $41,000 per student, compared with $23,400 in Hempstead. The state should ensure that the education of Hempstead’s children is financed at the same rate as students who live in Jericho.

Third, at the end of the school year, if contractually possible, district and school administrators should be required to reapply for their jobs. The state-appointed overseer would have final say over who remains.

Fourth, phase out the Hempstead middle school and high school and reopen the buildings as Nassau County magnet thematic school campuses. Students from across the county would apply for admission, but 20 percent of the seats would be reserved for Hempstead residents. The rest of Hempstead’s secondary school students would have the opportunity to attend better performing schools in neighboring districts.

Fifth, the state should implement a plan for countywide school consolidation that promotes racial, ethnic, and economic school integration and ensures a quality education for all students. Nassau County can become a model for education for the country. Wouldn’t that be something?

Alan J. Singer is a professor of teaching, learning and technology and the director of the social studies education program at Hofstra University.

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