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Evergreen Charter School gets Regents’ OK to add sixth grade

Gil Bernardino, founder and executive director of Circulo

Gil Bernardino, founder and executive director of Circulo de la Hispanidad, the nonprofit that runs the Evergreen Charter School on Peninsula Blvd. in Hempstead, is shown on Monday, March 21, 2016. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Evergreen Charter School in Hempstead won unanimous approval Monday from the state Board of Regents to add the sixth grade and increase kindergarten enrollment.

The Regents board, which sets education policy for the state, voted Monday afternoon to approve expansion of the school’s charter. Earlier, a Regents committee also voted unanimously in favor.

“This is a tremendously historic moment,” said Gil Bernardino, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Círculo de la Hispanidad, which created the Evergreen school. “It means a lot, because those students will have a much better future — and not just for this graduation class but for many others, for many years to come.”

The decision to expand, he said, was prompted by the interest of families whose children attend the school and a waiting list of “about 250 students.” The school will add two sixth-grade classes and a kindergarten class, with 25 students in each for a total of 75 new students next school year.

Evergreen, which opened in 2009 and has 300 students in kindergarten through fifth grade, is one of two charter schools in Hempstead, each of which seeks to offer an alternative to the struggling public school system.

“They’re doing a more than adequate job, and they’re certainly doing better than the [Hempstead] district,” said Roger Tilles of Great Neck, Long Island’s representative on the Regents board. Tilles, as a member of the panel’s P-12 Committee, had seconded the motion in favor of the expansion during the earlier vote.

“With all the multiple problems in that district,” he added, the Evergreen school represents “an option” to the district-run public schools. “I’m hoping now the district will solve its problems and parents won’t be pressured to seek alternative education.”

Charter schools are tuition-free public schools created by parents, educators and community leaders that operate under a five-year contract, or charter. Other charter schools on Long Island are in Riverhead, Roosevelt and Wainscott.

The SUNY Board of Trustees’ Charter Schools Committee in December granted approval for The Academy Charter School, which opened in 2009 in Hempstead, to enroll 50 ninth-graders in September — making it the first charter high school on Long Island.

The Hempstead school district’s elementary schools have been placed on the state Education Department’s “priority” and “focus” lists for improvement, while the middle school and high school have been categorized, respectively, as “struggling” and “persistently struggling” because of lagging academic performance.

Evergreen, in a memorandum to the Regents committee, cited “limited viable options for families” in the underperforming district as “a major factor for the request” to expand the charter school.

Critics of charter schools often contend that those schools drain resources from public systems by taking away students and a chunk of the taxpayer funds assigned to cover their education costs.

LaMont Johnson, Hempstead’s school board president, issued a statement, saying the district aims to do better.

“The Hempstead Union Free School District has made positive strides over the past few years,” Johnson said. “We remain focused on a quality education for all of our students and we are confident that, over the next few years, we will once again be known as an outstanding school district.”

Evergreen touts instruction in Spanish, enriched arts and physical education programs and “a workshop delivery model” for its English classes. It has shown better results in student test scores than Hempstead public schools for the past two school years in English language arts and math, according to the proposal.

Bernardino said parents and children, especially those in communities with failing schools, should have alternatives.

“In a democracy there should be a choice,” he said. “If I want to buy food, I go to the supermarket that I like, and it should be the same with education.”

A small group of students among those in the charter’s fifth grade said Monday that they were very happy that they’d come back another year to a school that feels like a tight-knit community of friends for them.

“I am very, very excited, because the school is like my second home,” said Reina Samuels, 10. “They are always able to make learning fun and they have a special way of teaching.”

Others concurred, saying they love their friends, feel connected to teachers, like the individualized attention and did not want to part from each other after completing the school year in June.

One girl said her mother would be glad.

“My mother has been talking about it . . . because she’s having a hard time looking for another school,” said Franchesca Miguel, 10. “I think she’s going to be very relieved.”

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