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OpinionEditorial

Progress in Roosevelt schools is a model for all struggling districts

The exterior of Roosevelt Middle School is pictured

The exterior of Roosevelt Middle School is pictured on Feb. 23, 2016. Credit: Barry Sloan

The Roosevelt school district has notched an encouraging first.

For the first time in more than 20 years, none of its five schools will appear on the state Education Department’s list of struggling schools. That’s worth applauding.

It’s taken a lot of hard work over a long time to get to this point. And, to their credit, officials in Roosevelt know there is much more to do. Getting your schools into good standing is one thing, they say. The real goal is excellence.

But Roosevelt’s heartwarming achievement cannot disguise the fact that Long Island as a region has done nothing to change its shameful record of separate and unequal education. Even as Roosevelt’s middle school was removed from the state’s “priority” list, two elementary schools in Hempstead, a middle school in Central Islip, and two elementary schools in Wyandanch were added to it.

The middle school in Wyandanch and the middle school and high school in Hempstead remain on the eight-school list. Other schools in Central Islip and Hempstead were among those who improved enough to come off it.

Look at that roster. It tells an old but profoundly troubling story of schools struggling to educate children who live in communities rife with poverty.

Children in these communities are more likely to struggle with hunger or lack access to healthy food, which affects learning. They don’t have the technology resources at home that others take for granted. Some lack English language skills. Gangs, violence and crime take a toll.

These are children, former state education commissioner John B. King Jr. told the U.S. Senate during hearings on his nomination to serve as U.S. secretary of education, “whose paths to school have been marked by burdens no young person should have to bear.”

Improving their performance in school means improving the conditions in their lives. That means understanding that their plight is, at least in part, the product of decades of housing discrimination and tight local control of education. Long Island is a patchwork of segregated communities with school systems similar only in the grades they teach. Hempstead and Garden City sit side by side. Wyandanch abuts Half Hollow Hills. Roosevelt is next to Merrick. Central Islip borders Hauppauge.

Progress in poor districts is difficult under the best circumstances. Sometimes they get in their own way. In communities with little political influence and a small business base, school districts are the major source of power and jobs. School board infighting and nepotistic hiring impede improvement.

That was the case in Roosevelt. Its problems were so severe that the state took over the district in 2002. But that 11-year reign exacerbated some of its academic and financial problems. On the plus side, the state did a $245 million reconstruction of Roosevelt’s schools, and that face-lift was followed by some solid hires for key leadership positions as the district emerged from state control.

The middle school’s comeback has many elements. Students, teachers, guidance counselors and staff collaborate in team learning. They focus on science, technology, engineering, math and the arts. Students wear uniforms, and are constantly monitored and supported with attention to their social and emotional development. Robotics and computer programming provide enrichment. Parents are involved, an essential part of student achievement.

The state likes what it sees. And yet, student performance still lags on state tests given in third through eighth grades, and while the high school graduation rate rose to 72 percent last year, college preparedness was at 3.3 percent. Interim superintendent Marnie Hazelton, who has been at Roosevelt for most of the last 20 years, correctly notes that progress is hard-won and the struggle to improve never ends.

The point is: There is no magic formula. Money alone is not the answer. Nor is state intervention; Roosevelt remains the only district taken over by the state, stung by its experience.

Smart people making good decisions without political interference is essential. Larger geographic districts, where students from different backgrounds mingle and learn from each other, would help. So would Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s proposal to spend $100 million to turn failing schools into community schools where social workers, medical personnel, mental health experts, and mentors assist students and families. The concept has worked elsewhere, and deserves more funding.

All of us — whether as parents, grandparents, siblings, relatives or friends — have watched happy youngsters set off for the first day of kindergarten, eager to learn. Their enthusiasm must be stoked, not extinguished; their innocent optimism met with an equally pure commitment to provide an education for all their years that helps them maximize their potential, not one that limits their options.

It’s a tall order, and it involves much more than teachers and classrooms. But it’s a responsibility we simply have to meet, whatever it takes.

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