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Opinion

Editorial: Hempstead schools must examine leadership

Hempstead superintendent Susan Johnson, right, with clerk Patricia

Hempstead superintendent Susan Johnson, right, with clerk Patricia Wright, left, addresses concerns during a school board special meeting at the Hempstead High School on Wednesday evening, Sept. 24, 2014. Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

The influx of immigrant children into Hempstead this year would have overwhelmed many school districts, never mind one as dysfunctional and poorly performing as Hempstead.

Two reports released by the state Education Department reveal the awful extent to which Hempstead floundered. Dozens of children were not properly enrolled, assessed or placed in correct grades, including 54 students who received no schooling until Oct. 22. This was not altogether surprising; the attitude of some Hempstead officials toward Latino students, now the majority in the district, has ranged from indifference to outright hostility.

This must stop now.

Hempstead must address the immediate problems detailed in the reports, then resolve the more systemic issues that threaten to harm all of its students for years to come. If that requires changes in top administrators, so be it. Stop denying children an education, stop derailing their development, stop stealing their futures.

The reports detailed a litany of failures:

The district had no executive director of bilingual education and English as a second language for most of the 2013-14 school year, has no Spanish-speaking parent liaison and needs more Spanish-speaking guidance counselors in the high school.

Enrollment procedures were chaotic for the high school annex, opened on Oct. 22 to accommodate an overflow of new students.

Hempstead has no clear protocol for evaluating students' home-country transcripts. Some documents were never reviewed. So the vast majority of new high school students were placed in ninth grade. In a poignant example of how these children's futures are being undermined, ninth-graders in an ESL class were observed by state officials cutting out the letters of the alphabet. Students seemed "insulted," the report stated. When asked by state officials to write a sentence in English, they were able to do so satisfactorily.

The district changed from nine periods a day to eight, reducing the number of classes offered, a "questionable" decision given the influx of students. The change was made in August, the same month the district reported that 968 new students had registered.

Hempstead must submit a corrective plan by Dec. 3. But its problems go beyond these failures. A state comptroller's audit is due soon, as is a BOCES special ed audit. A Nassau district attorney investigation is ongoing, and Hempstead still is plagued by overcrowded classrooms, leaky trailers and smoldering race relations, among other ills.

Strong leadership is required. The board of education -- which has two new members and no longer includes former president Betty Cross, whose antipathy to Latinos was well-known -- must decide whether Susan Johnson, in her third go-round as superintendent, is right for that job. We typically are loath to suggest another change in a district that has suffered mightily from revolving-door leadership. But if the board decides it needs a respected veteran educator with turnaround experience at the helm, it should cut ties with Johnson and let someone new start the process of restoring Hempstead.

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