AT L.I. HIGH SCHOOL, RACIAL FLUX CREATES PRESSURES AND PRIDE
By MICHAEL WINERIP, Special to the New York Times - February 4, 1985
ELMONT, L.I., Feb. 3 — Not long ago, Lucille Giambalvo, president of the Elmont Memorial High School P.T.A., got a phone call from a friend selling a house.
The friend said that when white buyers learned that their children would attend Elmont Memorial High, they lost interest. They had heard that Elmont Memorial High had gone downhill.
Mrs. Giambalvo told her friend it was not so. She bragged about the school's ''incredible'' principal, who meets with hundreds of parents a year, marches out front of every pep rally, is a strict disciplinarian and a free spirit, too. The man once dressed up as Michael Jackson.
''We don't have the problems people think we have,'' Mrs. Giambalvo said. ''If they'd just visit the school, they'd see. But how do you get that across?''
When a school's enrollment has gone from 8 percent to 36 percent minority in three years, it is difficult, no matter how many pep rallies are held.
No one knows it better than the ''incredible'' principal himself, David Kreutz. ''At some point a school tips,'' Mr. Kreutz said. ''You reach a certain minority population, and people get a stereotyped view. It's very bad for a school.''
State education officials, concerned about the racial balance in this suburban school district, have spent several months conducting a civil-rights investigation, which is due out soon.
The problems they have found here, in one of the first sections of Long Island to become densely populated after World War II, are expected to be increasingly common as the nation's suburbs age. The first postwar generation of white newcomers is dying off or moving away, and young, upwardly mobile minority families are pressing for a life in the suburbs.
If whites panic and leave in large numbers, the result can be segregated schools in the suburbs. Elmont Memorial High may be on the verge of tipping, as Mr. Kreutz phrased it, and becoming a segregated school - or it may not.
These things are based on human behavior, on people's perceptions, on fear - variables that do not lend themselves to a formula. It is a ''neighborhood'' school, and its makeup depends on the home-buying patterns in the area.
Elmont Memorial is a few blocks from the Nassau County border with the city. It has by far the highest percentage of minority groups in the Sewanhaka Central High School District. Three of the suburban district's schools are virtually all-white.
Of the five high schools in this suburban district, Elmont Memorial is the one closest to communities of minority groups on the city side of the border, in Queens. Several real-estate companies have been fined by the state in recent years for steering minorities into the Elmont area and whites away from it. Elmont Memorial's minority enrollment will probably be 41 percent to 45 percent of its 1,500 students by next year, according to various estimates.
The school is changing right before the students' eyes, and that creates strain. In the last two years, Sam Schneider, a 10th grader in the advanced placement program, has lost two of his best friends. They moved away to outlying all-white suburbs. ''Everyone's moving,'' Sam said. 'I'm supposedly a brain, and it's hard for me to make new friends.''
Because of the district's racial imbalance, the State Education Department has withheld re-accrediting all of the five high schools and one junior high school in the district until the schools correct whatever problems are cited in the civil-rights inquiry. If the district fails to comply, it could lose the authority to issue diplomas.
The state investigation has caused considerable tension and resentment here among both white and black parents, who ask why the state has intervened in a suburban district that still does not have a school where minorities predominate.
But civil-rights officials say the state must act soon, before Elmont Memorial loses its white students. James D. Rice, executive director of the Nassau County Human Rights Commission, said that if the school's minority population were stabilized now by state action, it would also help racially stabilize the surrounding neighborhoods.
Mr. Kreutz, who is 46 years old, knows well how much work it takes to run a school that has changed so much in such a short time.
He arrives at 7 in the morning and does not leave until after 5 P.M., comes back several nights a week and at least once on most weekends.
Two or three times a day, he will turn to his secretary, Lucy Castellanos, and shout, ''Lucy, I'm going into the halls,'' and he is gone, patrolling, picking up litter, checking hall passes, telling terrible jokes to whomever he runs into. But more than anything else, he is being seen - the principal.
He has a beeper and a cordless phone, and it is not unusual for him to be standing behind his desk, the regular phone in one ear, the cordless in the other, with his mouth moving back and forth like a video- game blip, saying, ''O.K., O.K., O.K., O.K.''
To help keep things running smoothly, Mr. Kreutz has decided that all social-studies classes will discuss race relations at Elmont Memorial.
He declared Jan. 14 to 18 Human Relations Week and planned an extensive program that included singing songs with harmonious messages. Everyone in the building - teachers, students, secretaries and janitors - was required to go.
So far, it appears to be working. People at the school generally seem to get along. ''There's not too much prejudice going around,'' said Al VanDuyne, a 10th grader.
Nate Goldstein, the teachers’ union representative in the building, said he looked forward to coming to work. ''When I tell people the things that go on at our school, they can't believe it,'' he said.
In November, at the Faculty Follies show, the principal went on stage as Michael Jackson, and his building union representative was a tulip. When it came to the part where Michael Jackson break- dances, it took four people to spin Mr. Kreutz around.
None of this is to say that all goes smoothly.
The change at Elmont Memorial angers Vincent Marinelli, the starting quarterback on the school football team.
''Used to be when people heard you're from Elmont, they'd praise you,'' he said. ''Now all the people are moving away. The black people, they act like they own the school.'' He said his parents would probably move when he and his younger brother graduate.
There are plenty of stories on both sides. One day two white boys came up to a black girl, Avonnie Wiltshire - who has won state awards for her original piano compositions - spat in her hair and ran away.
Right after Mignon Moore's family moved into a mostly white neighborhood, their car windows were smashed. Cindy Palagonia, who is white, was on her way to a slumber party when a couple of black youths with a gun robbed her.
A Hispanic boy shot a white boy in a school stairwell two years ago. Until the shooting, the drama club had been planning a production of ''West Side Story.'' They put on ''South Pacific'' instead.
It is taken as a healthy sign by all involved that ''West Side Story'' is on again for this year.
When David Kreutz first came to the school five years ago, they thought he was odd.
''In the beginning, we didn't know what to make of him,'' said Rosalie Morris, the chairman of the science department. ''We said, 'What's going on?' ''
''At first, his sense of humor seemed very offensive to me,'' said Mr. Goldstein. ''We'd always had very serious principals.''
Students were also slightly stunned in the beginning. ''At first, when I saw him dressed like Michael Jackson, I didn't know what it was,'' Harold Squires said. ''That's Mr. Kreutz. He's good. If there's something to be funny about, he's funny. But if it's time to be mean, he can be mean - he's not 100 percent mean or anything.''
When it is time to be mean, it must be racially balanced. Everyone keeps track and there are always charges of favoritism. If the black student with a big radio will not be let into school, Mr. Kreutz said, then the white student with her punk-style hair dyed yellow, blue and orange must be sent home, too.
And since, in a changing school, it is especially easy for people to take things the wrong way, Mr. Kreutz's philosophy is to keep his beeper turned on and to head off trouble before it gets through the door. That was where Jack Megarr, the assistant principal, was standing Halloween day, when the multicolored head appeared. ''I said, 'What is this?' '' Mr. Megarr recalled. '' 'We can't have this.' I met her outside and sent her home.''
Nationally, suspensions tend to increase at schools as their minority population grows. Civil-rights leaders complain that minorities are suspended at too high a rate.
Yet at Elmont Memorial, during a time when the minority population has more than quadrupled, suspensions dropped, from 500 in 1980, when Mr. Kreutz first came, to 119 last year. The principal has created his own discipline system, which keeps most students from missing school, as long as their parents come for a conference.
It would be much less work to just kick the problem students out. Last year the principal and two assistant principals held 600 parent conferences - before school, after school, at night and on weekends.
On a typical weekend, Mr. Kreutz will call half a dozen teachers at home to discuss upcoming events. ''Let's see - I called nine last weekend,'' Mr. Kreutz said.
''Sunday night, 10:30, I was asleep in bed and the phone rang,'' Mrs. Morris said. ''He said, 'It's David, did I wake you?' '' She lied, of course.
New Students, New Problems
Most of the minority families moving into this middle-class area are upwardly mobile people buying their own homes.
School officials give several reasons for why the growth of a population that appears to be of the same economic class creates more challenges for the school staff.
First, Mr. Kreutz said, the incoming minority families are not really of the same economic class. To make the mortgage payments, he said, two and three minority families sometimes live in a home.
'' We found a large number of multifamily situations in Elmont,'' said Daniel Salmon, a former superintendent who is now a consultant to the school district board.
Even in the more typical, single- family households, there is a difference. Often, both parents in the minority family must work to pay for the home they have bought in Elmont. The whites they replaced tended to be traditional ethnic families, in which the father was the sole support of the family.
Of the four communities in the central district - Floral Park, New Hyde Park, Franklin Square and Elmont - Elmont, the only integrated community, has the highest number of two-paycheck families. In two-paycheck families, there often is less parental supervision, Mr. Kreutz said, which can increase student discipline and academic problems.
The second challenge in teaching these minority children, said Mr. Kreutz, is that many who come to Elmont are foreign-born, frequently from the Caribbean, South America and Asia. From an educational standpoint, that has both a good and a bad side.
The good is that these children are bilingual and do well in foreign languages. Elmont Memorial is the only school in the district to offer fifth- year French and Spanish.
The bad is that their deficiencies in English hurt them on traditional, standardized testing. Innovative work by teachers can overcome some but not all of the problems with English.
For example, an aggressive remedial program has helped a higher percentage of Elmont Memorial 11th graders pass the Regents English competency test in the last five years than at the neighboring high school, Floral Park High, which is virtually all-white.
Yet, in most standardized testing, Elmont's minority students do not perform as well. Ten years ago, when Elmont Memorial was all-white, 50 percent of its graduates went on to four-year colleges. Today, it is about 37 percent.
Of the five high schools in the district, Elmont Memorial ranks last in number of Regents scholarships and in the number of students graduating with Regents diplomas.
A third complicating factor for the school's staff is the extra time and energy required to maintain calm at a school that is changing so fast. Little can be taken for granted. Last year Mr. Kreutz let students select a locker wherever they pleased. That was a mistake. He wound up with black corridors and white corridors, just like little segregated neighborhoods. The white youths were nervous about walking through the black corridors, and vice versa.
This year there was forced integration - students were assigned lockers by homeroom. And the staff keeps checking to make sure no one trades.
Finally, no matter how great a school is, there is a societal prejudice that a ''minority'' school will not be as good. Eventually, Mr. Kreutz said, that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy; chasing away prospective home buyers who can afford to live elsewhere.
At a community meeting not long ago, for example, a white woman announced that she would not send her children to Elmont Memorial - everyone knew it was a zoo, she said.
Mr. Kreutz believes that when prejudice is factored in with all the other points, it adds up to this conclusion: The historic 1954 United States Supreme Court civil-rights ruling - that racially separate education is unlikely to be equal education - still holds true, even in a middle-class suburb.
Mr. Kreutz knows how important his staff's morale is, and he is politically astute in keeping it high. In a time of shrinking enrollments and job layoffs in education, he knows that one way to hold on to teachers is to get students to take more courses. The more courses offered, the more teachers needed.
As part of this push, he holds an ''Electives Day,'' which is a way of advertising the flashy aspects of courses being offered the next semester. Older students show younger students how to dissect frogs and other worthwhile skills. Pretty soon, students start thinking that if they can cut things up, an extra biology course might not be such a bad idea.
''The total credit load of our youngsters has increased substantially in four years,'' Mr. Kreutz said.
He encourages teachers to take days off to visit other schools on Long Island. ''It's very, very, very important to be exposed to different ways of doing things,'' he said.
To stretch his budget, he repairs whatever he can. ''This paper folding machine, I found in the basement and fixed it,'' he said.
''He is Mr. Fix-It,'' his secretary, Mrs. Castellanos, said. ''He fixes everything, this man - everything.''
Sometimes he is so buoyant, it seems to Mrs. Castellanos that he might float out the window. ''You sound very chipper, dear; you're way up there today, aren't you?'' she said.
He is part missionary, part salesman. One of his brothers is a Jesuit priest in the Philippines, one of his sisters a nun on an Indian reservation in Mississippi.
''I do a lot of gimmick stuff,'' he said. ''There's a big new electric sign outside announcing school events.
''I march all the time in local parades - Pride in Elmont Day - I was there. We run pep rallies in fall, winter, spring. People say, 'You can't hold a pep rally, all the kids will go home early.' I seal off my building. No one leaves.''
Teamwork and Friendship
Each year, the school has a new theme to live by. In 1981 it was ''Pride in Elmont''; 1982 was ''Elmont Memorial, 25 years young and looking toward tomorrow.'' This year it is ''Elmont Memorial, the gold medal Olympic team.''
He imprints the school motto on pens and hands them out around town. ''It's a gimmick,'' he said. ''So what, right?''
''I blow the horn for this school,'' he said, and ran from his office back out into the corridor.
''Did I mention there are 90 members in the Future Business Leaders of America? We've got a terrific program, terrific.''
He ducked into a reading lab, where videotapes of old Flash Gordon serials are used to teach new vocabulary words. ''Isn't that something?'' he said, motioning toward the screen. ''It's very exciting, very exciting, very exciting. It's just so exciting.''
As he hurried back into the corridors, he stooped often to pick up litter. ''I have utopia here,'' he said. ''I have the best chairpeople and the best assistant principals you could have.''
There are, of course, all sorts of victories at a place like Elmont Memorial that are not measurable by standardized tests. What value should be assigned to the friendship between Lisa Herring and Patti Heffernan?
Lisa, black, and Patti, white, are two of the stars of the girls' basketball team.
They have no big reasons why they are friends. ''I get along with everybody,'' Patti said. ''Some people don't get along with anybody,'' Lisa said.
The girls' basketball team is famous for getting along. ''We don't know why,'' Lisa said, ''we just get along.''
Joanna Commander, the coach, grew up in an integrated community and was the only white person on her high school basketball team. After games, the black girls walked her home to make sure she was safe.
Now Miss Commander makes sure that, if there's a one-on-one drill, it's a black girl and a white girl working together. ''There's basketball skills and then the extraneous character things, and I happen to think I'm better at the extraneous stuff,'' she said. Also, the team is undefeated this year.
A Watchful Eye In Crowded Halls
''Lucy, I'm going into the halls,'' Mr. Kreutz yelled again.
The bell rang, the halls were instantly packed and Mr. Kreutz said ''Hiya, how you doing?'' to about a hundred people. Suddenly he stopped in a crowded spot and focused on two boys walking by casually.
''Boys, what are you doing?'' he said. ''Do you belong here?'' They did not. They go to another school. ''Out,'' said the principal. ''Out.''
One of the boys said that he had his rights. There was a tense moment as students gathered. Suddenly, Mr. Kreutz's voice grew quiet and precise. ''I will give you one warning,'' he said, ''and then we will call the police.'' The boys forgot about their rights and left.
In the chaos of crowded halls, in a school of 1,500, how had he recognized two outsiders? ''I know my kids,'' Mr. Kreutz said. ''I'm a face person.''
He then rushed back to his office and called his assistant principals on the beeper to make sure the two boys did not sneak back.
In the late afternoon, after doing some paperwork and talking on his cordless phone, he rushed into the corridors one last time. ''Did I mention we have 90 members in the Future Business Leaders of America?'' he again asked a visitor.
He rushed past a plaque he had mounted that lists all teachers, administrators, janitors and secretaries who have retired or who died, in Mr. Kreutz's words, ''while giving service'' to Elmont Memorial. The dedication says: ''Only the educated are free.''
He rushed around another corner and spotted a small figure at the end of a long hallway. Ninety-nine out of 100 people would have looked the other way. Not Mr. Kreutz. He waved wildly and screamed, ''Good night, Clare! Good night!'' In the distance the figure waved a hand and disappeared. ''I've got the greatest staff in the world,'' Mr. Kreutz said.
He said they were very, very, very good.
During the recent Human Relations Week, students at Elmont Memorial often puzzled over whether people in general were getting along better.
An Italian-American boy named Lewis was hopeful. ''My parents are prejudiced, and I'm just glad I'm not like that,'' he said. ''The kids younger than us will be less prejudiced, and after that, the other generations will have no prejudice altogether.''
''Why are you different than your parents?'' asked Susan Okun, the social worker leading the group.
''Well, I just opened my eyes,'' Lewis said.
Naturally, everyone thought that was a riot, until Mrs. Okun said it was the best answer she had heard all day. ''It was deep,'' she said.
There was a moment of quiet, and then one person clapped, and soon all were clapping for Lewis's answer.
But there were other answers. Cindy Palagonia told a story of how her sister's best friend was a black girl named Paschale. They did everything together. But as they got older, Paschale spent more time with her black friends and Cindy's sister went more with her white friends. This made Cindy unsure whether people really were progressing.
ELMONT MEMORIAL HIGH SCHOOL
Elmont, New York is at the western edge of Long Island’s Nassau County where it abuts the eastern edge of the New York City borough of Queens. As mid-20th century residential development expanded on the Queens side of that county line, it bought as a component of the population, African-American families leaving their older Brooklyn and other inner city neighborhoods, seeking suburban home ownership.
Eventually this population expansion started to creep across the Nassau border. One of the places to feel the impact this expansion was Elmont.
Elmont Memorial High School (1982)
During the 1982-1985, period Elmont Memorial High School went from 8% to 36% minority1. At this time, 30% minority (principally African-American), was considered the upper level of toleration before an area became inevitably African-American.
Elmont was no exception with the area becoming predominantly non-white and school eventually becoming 99% non-white. Though not immune to race related socio-economic problems, the school did not collapse into academic mediocrity.
Elmont’s improvement began in 1990 when Diane Scricca assumed the principalship2. Looking back, she says, it was a “mediocre” school with graduation rates that hovered around 80 percent. Most of the African American and low-income students were in “modified,” or remedial classes taught at a very low level. With a lot of training of teachers in how to teach to all students, she eliminated the low-level classes.
“A lot of students who came to Elmont came...with very poor preparation but most significantly, they came unloved. There’s nothing worse than kids being in a school and being unloved and knowing that their teachers don’t like them...and don’t believe they can learn.” She talked about developing a “pro-active approach” to preventing discipline problems by providing more instruction and more time. Kids who cut class or school or didn’t turn in their homework or acted out in class were required to come to school on Saturdays. “We said we love you, here’s breakfast, and gave them more instruction,”
- Diane Scricca 3
In the intervening years, this above and beyond level, of commitment from the administration and the faculty has been sustained. 4
Given the racial composition of the student body (75%) African-American, the school would be expected to rank somewhere in the bottom quarter of all state middle and/or high schools.
In its middle school component, the 2018 data suggests that Elmont is able to overcome is able to overcome relative student deficiencies in English and science by the end of the 8th grade, though computational capabilities remain lagging. The 2018 8th grade math achievement may be some sort of data artifacts as both the school and the district underperformed the state average.
In the period 2005 to 2018 Elmont’s Middle School’s status as compared to the other middle school in the state has risen from about the 40th percentile to the 64th percentile.
This feeds into the high school which has from a ranking of about risen over the same period from about a third the way up the table to the 61st percentile.
New York State Regents Examinations first administered in 1866 area a series of state-wide tests in various high school subject areas. The test areas have varied over the years but their longevity and breadth provides perhaps a better yardstick than is available in other states.
Elmont is able to match or exceed in most exam subjects with the exceptions of chemistry, geometry and particularly physics.