The multitude of complex problems plaguing the Hempstead School District have made headlines across the region.
From persistent rumors of a state takeover of the district to ongoing battles against school-related violence, corruption, sub-par academics and school board in-fighting, residents and educators alike agree there are no easy answers.
“I think that Hempstead has passed the point of no return as a failed school district,” says Hofstra University Professor Dr. Alan Singer, who teaches learning technology. He
thinks the state should take over the district with the “goal of consolidating its schools with surrounding communities.”
The idea of consolidating Hempstead with surrounding districts such as Uniondale and Garden City to “end racial imbalances” has been floated since the early 1960s, according to The New York Times.
“It [the Hempstead School District] is a large employer for people who live in the town, so school board battles have often been about control over jobs, not about education,” Singer says, noting that the challenge is typical of urban minority communities.
“A more recent problem is,” Singer adds, “that higher-performing students from more economically stable family situations are drawn off by charter schools.”
This results in public schools having larger concentrations of students who are less prepared for learning, leaving teachers overwhelmed, Singer says.
Taylor Raynor, a Hempstead resident and business analyst who is challenging 30-year incumbent state Assembly Dep. Speaker Earlene Hooper (D-Hempstead) in the Sept. 13 Democratic primary, agrees that the district’s cultural differences need to be addressed.
“We must ensure that there is language and cultural support in the schools to help the students,” Raynor says. “We need more professionals who speak the student’s language… the majority of students speak Spanish. There is a definite need for more resources for students whose first language isn’t English.”
Raynor, who recently formed an educational advocacy group called Save Hempstead Students, adds that safety issues include a lack of bus transportation, which forces students to traverse violence-prone neighborhoods, and students having to walk across the busy Southern State Parkway entrance ramp to get to Hempstead High School.
Raynor and Singer say Hooper has not done enough to help the district and its students.
“As a public servant, you really need to be available,” Raynor says, comparing Hooper to a “firefighter… who is never around to put out fires.”
Raynor also alleged that Hooper does not collaborate with elected officials to get things done for the district. Former Hempstead Village Mayor Wayne Hall Sr. agreed, saying Hooper routinely “ignored” requests for help.
“I think Assembly Member Hooper’s political machinations are a good symbol for all the problems that confront the Hempstead community and its schools,” Singer says.
Recently, Hooper was asked about help she had provided for the Hempstead School District since 2009, when she helped secure a $200,000 grant for the district. She responded by talking about how she helped keep the Hempstead Stop & Shop grocery store from closing.
Despite Singer’s contention that there are few fixes to implement and that “most proposals are just gimmicks to avoid a state takeover and to provide the state with an excuse not to take responsibility to educate the children of Hempstead,” a recent report from state appointed adviser Jack Bierwirth provided some hope for improvement.
Bierwirth’s report to State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia notes that progress has been made in several areas, including a more cohesive school board that seems more willing and capable to pursue corruption. In addition, strides had been made in developing an accept- able budget for 2018-2019 as well as much-needed improvements in safety and security, including upgrading security video cameras and hiring more security personnel.
Other bright spots include more than 30 graduates this year who were awarded the Seal of Bi-Literacy, an award given by a school or district to recognize students proficient in two or more languages. Also, the 2018 valedictorian will be attending Harvard and the 2018 salutatorian will be attending Yale.
“During the fall there was a fight in the high school on an almost daily basis,” Bierwirth notes. “But, the climate improved significantly at the end of January and remained much more positive and much safer through the end of the school year.”
Still, other problems in the district persist, such as unchecked overtime, district-wide favoritism, and “serious deficiencies” regarding the district’s nutrition and food services.