Central High School has consistently graduated men of color at a higher rate than the state average, according to New York State Education Department data, which shows that more than 90 percent of the school’s black male population has received high school diplomas, while the statewide average is about 60 percent.
The results caught the attention of Dr. Anael Alston, the state’s assistant commissioner for the Office of Access, Equity and Community Engagement. On March 18, Alston sent Central High School District Superintendent Bill Heidenreich a letter informing him that Central was one of only about a dozen schools in the state that have such high graduation rates for male African-American students, and have “a positive trajectory as a school community.”
In response, Heidenreich said he was “not really surprised.”
“All of our students do exceptionally well,” he said, attributing Central’s success to the district’s high expectations. “In my experience, kids will jump as high as the bar you set for them.”
He also said that the recognition was proof of the high quality of Central’s staff and administrators, and in particular, Principal Joseph Pompilio, who said that the teachers at Central support their students and make themselves available to them.
“We create opportunities for all students,” Pompilio said. “I’m glad that the state has recognized our hard work.”
The school also incorporates a diversity of authors in its English curriculum, with works coming from a wide swath of writers of different backgrounds.
Elaine Gross, president of Syosset-based nonprofit ERASE Racism, said that such a focus on diversity in literature could help improve a school’s black male graduation rate, as black males often do not see themselves reflected in classical English works or history, and if they do, the black character is portrayed in a negative light.
When students read authors from diverse backgrounds, there is the chance that they will become more engaged in what they are learning, Gross said.
“The schools need to be the place where they find some affirmation,” she added, saying that there should be a climate of inclusion in every school.
And in a minority-majority neighborhood like Valley Stream, a focus on diversity in its schools would be a crucial factor in preventing student alienation.
Diversity standards must also be carried out throughout a student’s education, Heidenreich said, adding that Central would not have such a successful record if not for the work of Valley Stream’s three elementary school districts, which have also strived to add more diverse voices to their curricula.
Last year in District 13, for example, teachers and students at Howell Road School sorted books in their classrooms based on the protagonists’ culture. The exercise highlighted for a first-grade teacher there that all of the books she had about the first day of school featured characters who were white, and she decided to order new, more culturally diverse books. Howell Road Principal Frank Hupolsky also said he wanted to hire a professional developer who could speak about implicit and explicit bias, and how to avoid “micro-aggressions” — the unintentional ways in which ignorance of another culture may give offense.
District 24 also contracted with Nancy Kaplan, the associate provost for external academic services at St. John’s University. Kaplan has provided workshops to the teachers in the district to teach them how to incorporate diversity into the curriculum. Additionally, the district’s classroom libraries and media centers feature diverse authors, and the district organizes events and assemblies to promote diversity, according to Lisa Conte, the district’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.
“Everything we do reflects diversity,” she said.
Diversity is also included in District 30’s mission statement, according to Superintendent Nicholas Stirling. As a result, he said, district officials try to promote diversity in everything they do, including having diverse reading materials and hiring teachers from diverse backgrounds. Additionally, he said, the district partnered with the Long Island Consortium for Excellence and Equity to study teachers’ cultural proficiency and how cultural knowledge could benefit one’s education.
“Valley Stream 30’s strength is its diversity,” Stirling said. “We live and breathe it every day.”
To further understand why Central continues to have such a high percentage of graduating black males, the State Education Department contracted with Pittsford-based PLC Associates Inc. to interview students, teachers and administrators about the practices, policies and decisions that make the school so successful. Once the researchers gather enough data from Central and the other schools with high black male graduation rates, they will look for themes and practices that are consistent among all of the schools. Their findings will then be presented to the Board of Regents and at the Education Department’s “My Brother’s Keeper” symposium, which will discuss ways to improve outcomes for boys and young men of color on May 31.
Additionally, representatives of PLC Associates will use the knowledge they gain to train officials at other school districts on ways they can improve their black male graduation rates.
“I hope we can come up with a model that can serve other students,” Pompilio said.