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Good Morning

No time to waste to improve Hempstead’s public schools

The Hempstead school board meets in executive session

The Hempstead school board meets in executive session on Tuesday. Credit: Howard Schnapp

The children of Hempstead have been ill-served by their failing school system for decades. So it should come as no surprise that Hempstead’s state-appointed adviser says it will take five to 10 years to turn Long Island’s most-troubled school district around.

No one can dig quickly out of that kind of hole.

But the words of veteran educator Jack Bierwirth should not be misconstrued. His realistic assessment of a target date for delivering an adequate education does not diminish the urgency to move forward every single day. Hempstead will never reach that goal if it isn’t consistent and determined in its drive to get there. Otherwise, more generations of students will be cheated. That doesn’t mean progress along the way shouldn’t be applauded. But if those strides are not used as building blocks for more progress, they will be meaningless.

Much of the responsibility for success rests with the school board. Famously dysfunctional, the one in place since July 1 appears more cohesive, as Bierwirth wrote in his latest report to state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia. But it’s worth noting that this cohesion was created by another racially charged election in May. And that some current board members were dismissive and contemptuous of fellow members who were Latino. And that those Latino members, now gone, had been elected on a reform platform and pushed for some of the same changes credited as progress in Bierwirth’s report. The new board needs to demonstrate competence, perserverance and openness about its goals, the changes it’s making in pursuit of them, and whether those changes work. It needs to work on behalf of all students.

The board also needs to fulfill its promise to follow up on the recently completed forensic audit of Hempstead’s finances and refer instances that may be criminal, no matter who is implicated, to the Nassau County district attorney. And DA Madeline Singas must follow through, and even consider issuing a grand jury report on her findings about district operations.

Good things have happened since Bierwirth’s scathing initial assessment in January. Despite some setbacks, the business office is becoming professionalized. Voters in May approved a bond to rebuild an elementary school closed 17 years ago and to begin removing the portable classrooms that have plagued the district. The high school’s valedictorian and salutatorian are going to Harvard and Yale, respectively.

But daunting challenges remain. Hempstead’s graduation rate continues to hover under 40 percent. In 2016-17, only 13 percent of eighth-graders met or exceeded proficiency standards on state tests; in math, it was zero percent. Nearly 40 percent of students are English language learners, and 70 percent are classified as economically disadvantaged.

If Hempstead needed a metaphor, it came Tuesday night when, Bierwirth said, lightning struck the roof of Prospect elementary school and started a fire. Repairs will be extensive. Bierwirth hopes the school is ready to open after Labor Day. It’s one more hurdle in a very long race.

“This is about what needs to be done for kids and doing it permanently, not for six months or a year,” Bierwirth said. “It’s time . . . They need the changes now.”