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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Schools need aid in dealing with unaccompanied minors

Hempstead School Board President Lamont Johnson met with

Hempstead School Board President Lamont Johnson met with community members and parents on Oct. 17, 2014, to discuss the turning away of students throughout the district. A report released Wednesday, April 8, 2015, says the number of unaccompanied immigrant children coming to the U.S. is expected to increase. Credit: Johnny Milano

Last month, well after a wave of undocumented immigrant minors had entered the United States, the federal government finally set aside $14 million in education grants for communities where the children settled down.

The sum was small, too small given that some communities -- and school districts -- were disproportionately impacted by the 53,500 children who arrived in the federal fiscal year ending on Sept. 30, 2014. And it was late in coming.

Take Hempstead, for example. The already overcrowded district received a significant number of the estimated 3,000 unescorted minors who ended up on Long Island.

The district, under state and federal law, was asked to absorb hundreds of new students with little or no preparation. Along with already tight classroom space. Too few teachers. And no significant infusion of federal funds to make things work.

Which became an issue at some of the other Long Island districts that took on unaccompanied minors as well.

But it was Hempstead that came under the most public scrutiny from the New York State Education Department after complaints the district had turned away some undocumented students and consigned dozens of them to a waitlist, rather than allowing them to enroll.

And last month, the district agreed to allow the state attorney general's office in to monitor enrollment procedures until June 2018, to ensure that it complies with state and federal laws concerning immigrant students.

But now comes word -- via an analysis released last week by the Migration Policy Institute, a not-for-profit based in Washington, D.C., that studies movement of people across international borders -- that another 39,000 unaccompanied minors could be coming to the United States during the current federal fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

What will districts -- such as Hempstead, where the high and junior high schools are on a state "failing schools" list -- have to do this time around to ensure that students, old and new, get resources they need?

And what about the federal government, which -- for decades now -- had remained deadlocked in reaching a workable immigration policy?

Last year, a measure backed by Reps. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) and Peter King (R-Massapequa) to send emergency federal funding to schools enrolling undocumented minors went nowhere.

But last week, the lawmakers said they would reintroduce the measure, which would help districts including Hempstead, Huntington, Brentwood, Freeport, Glen Cove, Hampton Bays and Westbury that received students in the last wave. Already, between Oct. 1 and February, another 291 unaccompanied minors have come, adding more students.

The unexpected influx of undocumented minors -- along with uncertainty on whether Washington could provide funding -- is complicating budget-drafting efforts in some districts, according to a Newsday report by Víctor Manuel Ramos.

It's also influencing discussions on how New York State will implement recently approved legislation on dealing with failing schools. How fair would it be, for example, to -- as the legislation allows -- begin a process to change management in already struggling schools in districts that now are scrambling to provide for both old and new students?

And who is going to pay, especially since the most overwhelmed districts are unlikely to get voter approval to break the state tax cap?

Thirty-five states qualify to apply for some of the $14 million in grant aid, which isn't even available yet. Which is why schools need, and deserve, federal emergency aid now.

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