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Westbury High School freshmen: Learning in a world apart

Beset by overcrowding, the district placed its Ninth Grade Academy in leased space at Nassau Community College.

Students take art class at the Westbury district's

Students take art class at the Westbury district's Ninth Grade Academy at Nassau Community College on Thursday. Photo Credit: Randee Daddona

Westbury High School’s freshmen have spent their first year separated and apart from the upper grades, going to classes in a Nassau Community College annex as overcrowding literally pushed the students out of their own building.

The district, unlike many of Long Island’s 124 public systems, has seen surging enrollment in recent years, with about 5,300 students this year and growth of more than 30 percent over the past decade. The high school’s student body is projected to grow by hundreds more during at least the next five years.

Relief is on the way, though it will not be immediate: Residents this month approved a $58.5 million bond issue that will add dozens more classrooms and new cafeterias at the middle and high schools.

“We want our students back in Westbury,” Superintendent Eudes S. Budhai said last week. “As beautiful as this space [at NCC] is and the magic that is happening here, we do want our students back in Westbury.”

About 350 ninth-graders have been enrolled in the district’s Ninth Grade Academy at NCC’s North Annex, about three miles from Westbury High School, since the start of the school year in September.

District officials came up with the temporary solution as they faced the prospect of trying to cram 1,600-plus students in grades nine through 12 into the high school at the corner of Jericho Turnpike and Post Road, constructed in 1958 for 1,100 students.

Right before the start of school, however, the state Education Department said the district could not lease the NCC building, which is physically located in Uniondale, outside the Westbury district’s boundaries. After the district made an eleventh-hour plea to Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia on Aug. 24, the state permitted a one-year lease — only for the current school year.

That agreement is expected to expire, although Westbury officials have been in touch with Education Department officials about extending it.

The state agency said the district’s plans are under review. Education Department officials said the agency realizes that “the district has significant constraints, and we plan to do what we can to complete the review as quickly as possible.”

Westbury district officials said the expansion at the middle and high schools is not expected to be complete until September 2020 unless the Education Department allows plans to be expedited.

The state agency, for its part, said officials are “speaking with the district’s leaders and design professionals often in order to help move this project along.”

The bond issue that voters approved in a 1,016-463 vote on May 15 will enable the school system to build 12 modular classrooms at the middle school and 14 at the high school, as well as make other upgrades. The plan will be aligned with state aid, financed over 17 years and, given state aid, will be tax-neutral for the community.

Westbury officials have reported a projected district enrollment of 5,262 students to the state for 2018-19.

At the high school, enrollment is projected to increase from 1,608 students in the current school year to 1,928 in 2022-23. At the middle school, where capacity is 942 students, enrollment is projected to climb from the current 1,110 to 1,144 in 2022-23.

Classes have been held in the middle school’s library, on the auditorium stage, in the band room and in the cafeteria, school officials said.

In the meantime, district officials have transformed the NCC North Annex to look more like a high school setting rather than an extension of a college campus. The hallways are decorated with positive messages and murals.

“We had to take a good look at this building, at each individual space, to see what would work,” Assistant Principal Paul Pelech said.

The district spent about $1.3 million to operate and convert the annex into appropriate learning spaces for the ninth-graders.

They added a cafeteria where hot lunch is served, repurposed a classroom into an art room, and set aside offices for guidance counselors and social workers. Security was upgraded, including installation of cameras in the hallways.

Students are bused daily to a nearby gym for physical education. They also are bused to the high school — about an eight-minute drive — if they participate in after-school activities such as sports or theater.

Ninth-grader Loren Hunt, 14, said her freshman year turned out better than she had anticipated. She plays violin, and the district has a ninth-grade philharmonic orchestra where both band and orchestra student musicians play together.

“It was a great way to interact with our peers. We were closer and I especially liked the music department,” she said.

Freshman Angela Urrea, 14, said it was much easier to interact with teachers at the annex.

“I was nervous because we weren’t going to be close to the high school, but it turned out being better; we get to socialize with the teachers way more,” she said.

The district has grappled for years with increasing demand as its demographics have shifted. According to state Education Department data, the district’s student population was 72 percent Hispanic or Latino in 2016-17, compared with 54 percent a decade prior. Twenty-five percent of students in 2016-17 were African-American, compared with 41 percent a decade earlier.

The concept of an academy to specifically serve freshmen will remain within the district, officials said, even when the new classrooms are complete with teachers and staff dedicated to ninth-grade instruction. The plans for such an academy have been in the works for years.

“The ninth-grade year is so crucial to high school success and to college success,” said David Zimbler, Westbury High’s principal.

Westbury school district’s enrollment

2007-08: 4,067

2008-09: 4,166

2009-10: 4,359

2010-11: 4,466

2011-12: 4,611

2012-13: 4,787

2013-14: 4,988

2014-15: 5,061

2015-16: 5,135

2016-17: 5,367

2017-18: 5,341

Source: Westbury school district

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