Guest Spot: The shame of the Riverhead School District

09/03/2016 12:00 PM |

How can we allow our traditional public schools to continue to fail black and Hispanic students? Why aren’t failing schools met with outrage and skepticism?

When I initially read about the state designating Riverhead School District as a Focus District, I immediately thought about Jonathan Kozol’s book “The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America.”

Riley Avenue Elementary School in Calverton has been zoned to receive most of the district’s Caucasian students, while black and Hispanic students are relegated to attend schools that have failed them perennially. Please read the recent letter signed by Christine Tona, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, explaining Riverhead’s designation as a Focus District. It takes a high degree of arrogance and privilege to shape the narrative to blame others for what’s clearly a lack of progress.

The following schools were designated Focus Schools this year due to their inability to show growth in the following subgroups of students:

• Roanoke Avenue Elementary School: economically disadvantaged (Hispanic).

• Riverhead Middle School: economically disadvantaged (Limited English Proficient).

• Riley Avenue Elementary School: students with disabilities.

• Riverhead High School: economically disadvantaged (Hispanic).

• Phillips Avenue Elementary School: economically disadvantaged (black and Hispanic).

• Pulaski Street Elementary School: economically disadvantaged (black, Hispanic and Limited English Proficient).

How is this not a civil rights issue, with black and brown students consistently not showing academic growth? Academic plans (local assistance plans) being put into place and failing miserably, with little to no accountability? Not everyone can be rated effective when certain subgroups of students clearly aren’t learning. Why aren’t black and Hispanic leaders in Riverhead and around the country up in arms about what’s transpiring in this district?

The NAACP recently passed a referendum calling for a moratorium on charter schools nationwide. However, the Riverhead School District is a perfect case study in showing why a referendum such as this is inherently wrong and will ultimately do more damage to black and Hispanic students.

The NAACP, Black Lives Matters education platform, etc., need to focus on failing schools, period. There shouldn’t be this move to isolate charter schools and use them as scapegoats for America’s failing schools. Charter schools educate six percent of students nationwide.

After doing a statistical analysis of the test scores, we found the Riverhead Charter School outperformed both Riley and Aquebogue schools.

More than half of our public charter school’s population comes from the Riverhead School District. Let me be the first to say those students are showing academic growth.

The option for students in a Focus School to transfer to a school in good standing is legally required by the state’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The law requires districts to notify parents no later than 14 days before the start of the school year of their option to transfer from a Focus School. What’s being done to improve these schools? Have there been any changes in leadership? These are all questions I ask because I know what accountability should look like.

The district had known of their responsibility to inform parents of their choices for months — why wait until the state-mandated deadline of 14 days before the beginning of the school year to inform parents of their rights?

We can no longer turn a blind eye to what’s occurring in these schools. I know firsthand that if schools are integrated through parental choice, all kids can learn. Our charter school is a perfect example since we have made progress with the toughest subgroups of students, including economically disadvantaged and black and Hispanic students.

We’ve reached out to the Riverhead School District on numerous occasions to foster a relationship and share best practices. It should be second nature for a relationship to exist, since over half our K-8 student population attends Riverhead High School. Quite frankly, I’m a little scared for our future high school students. It may be time to petition the state to expand our charter school to include high school grades in order to give parents yet another choice for their children, as well as help with classroom sizes and overcrowding.

Lastly, as I’ve read comments posted online about Riverhead School District’s designation as a Focus District, I’ve seen remarks that were blatantly racist. The mere thought of blaming migrant workers for failing schools speaks to the regressions that are occurring regarding race relations in our country. Migrant workers, poor Caucasian families, black families, Hispanic families — all families have a right to a quality education. Race should not play a role in what we offer to students.

While I know this column won’t go over well with a lot of people on Long Island, I hope it starts a conversation about ways to improve schools for all students.

Raymond AnkrumRaymond Ankrum is executive director and principal of Riverhead Charter School in Calverton.