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Hempstead moves to quickly open alternative school

A Hempstead police car waits outside Hempstead High

A Hempstead police car waits outside Hempstead High School as students are dismissed early after a second disturbance at the school in a week. (March 12, 2010) Photo Credit: Newsday / Karen Wiles Stabile

Recent violence at Hempstead High School has prompted district officials to accelerate plans to open an alternative school for students with behavioral problems, learning disabilities, academic challenges or who "will not be or cannot be in the high school setting," Hempstead Superintendent Patricia Watkins said.

Hoping to increase the high school's graduation rate, Watkins said officials had been planning since November, for the new school to open in the fall, but decided to act now in response to a large fight Monday.

Eight students were injured in the melee and officials felt forced to dismiss school after lunch. On Friday, officials again sent students home early after another confrontation and Watkins seemed hopeful the disruptions would end.

"Hopefully, this might be the reality check that some of them need," she said.

Watkins said she hoped about 30 students would begin taking classes off-site by the end of this month. Under the original plan, about 100 students were going to start in September. About 1,700 students are enrolled at Hempstead High. Students would attend the alternative facility full-time and would no longer be enrolled at Hempstead High School.

Charles Renfroe, Hempstead school board president, said he and other board members like the superintendent's plan. "We do not want to see kids out of school and in the streets, because that creates chaos," he said.

Beverly Barr, PTSA president of Hempstead High, also said she welcomed the alternative school idea.

Other recent violent incidents at the school include back-to-back fights in October 2008 that were similar to Monday's. In January 2008, freshman Michael Alguera, 15, was fatally stabbed in the school handball court less than an hour after dismissal.

The district plans to hire new teachers for the alternative school and provide standard high school courses as well as courses about character training, social skills and career development, Watkins said.

The facility will be located in about four rooms at Farmingdale State College's campus in Hempstead Village, she said.

The plan must be approved by the Hempstead school board, Watkins said.

The board will meet and is likely to formally approve the plan as soon as the superintendent notifies them the site is ready, Renfroe said.

Watkins said Hempstead High School has been sending students who have problems there to regional BOCES schools as alternatives.

Jericho School District Superintendent Henry Grishman said several school districts in Nassau County, including his own, use alternative schools for some students.

"We have been very pleased with kids who have completed those programs," he said.

Watkins said the new school will provide a different setting for students who "don't respond to the traditional structure of the high school" but declined to go into detail about how students would be chosen to attend the school.

With John Hildebrand

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