As I research my village -- my officially 55,000 but really thousands more village -- I keep coming to the awful question: What on earth happened to the school system?
I can see that the demographics changed. By 1961, two of the six elementary schools were so heavily black compared to the other four that outsiders denounced the school board, claiming de facto segregation and demanding that the schools be integrated. The school board genuinely deliberated a solution. Its members then released a thoughtfully worded bulletin explaining that integrating so that each school reflected the overall percentage of black and white in the village would mean moving 100 black students from this school to that, and 90 white students from that school to this other, and so forth. Not only would such a plan disrupt longtime student relationships with their neighborhoods and teachers, but it would entail deciding which students stayed and which students got moved. The board decided to focus on maintaining oversight of all the schools so that the quality of education in all the schools was equal. After all, the schools were not literally segregated in the sense that black students were prevented from attending any school. Rather, more black people lived on one side of town than the other.
By 1969, the black population was 36% of the village, but the student population was 75% black. Half the ninth graders read below grade level. In mid-1969, black students marched through the halls of Hempsetad High demanding a relaxation of rules. They did damage in the cafeteria and set a small fire in teacher's lounge. Not a year later, in March 1970, black parents and students besieged a school board meeting demanding more discipline. The school superintendent resigned.
The proportion of both white and black parents opting to send their children to private schools increased. Basically, whoever could do so abandoned the Hempstead public school system. By the early 1970s, the school population was 80% black. Superintendents came and went. Graduation rates tumbled and never recovered.
The puzzle for me is this: I have taught, both formally and informally, for forty-two years. I've taught ballet, drama, and reading to white, black, Asian, South American, Middle Eastern. I don't see a difference in the way children learn, especially very young children. Many black kids attended the schools I went to in Dayton, Ohio, and the Dayton Ballet often had black dancers in it -- the most famous black alumna being Donna Wood, a dancer of central importance to the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre from about 1973 to 1982. During my teens in the Dayton Ballet, the man I was most often paired with in ballets that had partnering was black. Taling to him wasn’t any different than talking to a white dancer. It wasn't that we were color-blind; obviously we noticed our skins. But there was no essential difference. We worked hard together. My black friends were just as disciplined and able as any of us white kids.
When I taught, of course at times I noticed cultural differences, but I always focused on engaging every child in the work at hand. Children love to feel able, and they love to see a production come together in which their participation matters. Skin color or ethnic features make no difference. If they are motivated to learn, they do it.
This is the reason I feel so puzzled by what has happened to the Hempstead public school system. The elementary schools have a pretty good reputation, but it seems like once the children reach middle school and then high school, the likelihood of their doing well scholastically shrinks drastically. The graduation rate has fluctuated from about 34% to at most 62% -- does that make sense to anybody? What is going on?
Race is simply not the issue. The Hempstead student body today is 75% Hispanic, the rest being black with a few white or Asian children. The graduation rate is no better than it was in 1990, when Newsday produced a long article about Hempstead High School called "Crisis High." In 1990, the high school was still majority black.
During fall of 2005, I observed for three days straight in Hempstead High, as part of a project for Empire State College's M.A. in Education program. Soon after, I had to drop out of the program because I was too heavily burdened with caring for my kids while trying to earn a lot more as an editor to keep up with my assignments. But I don't forget the sense I had that the problem at Hempstead High was not that the students meant any harm, but rather, they would not concentrate for more than a few seconds at a time. I remember the disheartened frustration of the ninth-grade math teacher, a gentle man, as he would get the students’ attention, start showing the day's concept on the chalkboard, only to have them turn back within ten seconds and start chattering again. He was showing them a basic algebraic operation that the seventh graders I had subbed for at Lawrence Road School were doing a few days before.
The chemistry teacher had a somewhat better time, but had fewer students than the ninth grade math teacher, so it’s hard to compare whether he was a more effective teacher. The history teacher had once taught at Roslyn High School, which was virtually 100% white and had a much higher graduation rate. He said that at Hempstead High, the parents were actually MORE supportive if he called home to tell of a student's misbehavior. I felt confused. If that was so, why didn't the students get better grades?
I still don't have any answers. I have lived in Hempstead Village for 24 years and the school system has never improved except briefly when Reginald Straughn was principal of Hempstead High. Why not?
Of course, there are village students who graduate and do well. A 60% graduation rate means that if there are 1,500 students in the school, then 900 graduated. But most other districts on Long Island (excepting Roosevelt, and possibly Wyandanch and Westbury) have a graduation rate well above 90%.
It is time for me to start attending school board meetings and researching Hemsptead schools both current and past. This should be interesting.