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Immigrant kids report smooth first day at Hempstead 'transition school'

Hempstead immigrant children who were turned away from local public schools for weeks because of overcrowding finally saw a start to the academic year with Wednesday's opening of a "transition school" on Main Street in the village.

Before 8 a.m., they streamed into what district officials have dubbed Hempstead High School Annex, backpacks filled with notebooks and pens. At the afternoon dismissal, several students said they were pleased with the experience.

José Martínez was all smiles, saying the school was better than he expected. In addition to his first English and reading lessons, he said, food was served and he got a physical education period that he enjoyed.

"They treated us well and everything is beautiful inside," Martínez, 17, said in Spanish. "I am happy because I finally started school."

Martínez is one of a group that advocates had pegged at 34 Hispanic kids -- mostly recent immigrants from an influx of unaccompanied minors from Central America who entered the country illegally -- who were repeatedly turned away from Hempstead schools because of lack of room, insufficient teaching staff and scheduling delays.

District officials remained silent Wednesday on any long-term plans for moving the students to the regular high school, about a mile away. They did not comment on the opening or answer questions about financial costs to the district or the legal basis for establishing a separate school attended largely by Hispanic students.

The district's situation surfaced last week when advocates joined parents to protest. State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. ordered a Nassau BOCES investigation of enrollment procedures in Hempstead -- the first time state officials could recall such a mandate being issued -- and the district then announced it was opening a transition school.

Hempstead school spokesman Nathan Jackson said Wednesday that officials were not willing to comment until the district answers questions in the ongoing BOCES investigation.

Officials earlier had said they expected as many as 150 students at the annex by the end of this week.

Elias Mestizo, head of the Hempstead Classroom Teachers Association, said about 65 to 70 are students who had been left out of school, and the remainder will be students relocated from overcrowded classrooms at the main school campus.

The first day of classes seemed to go smoothly, for the most part, as staff and students arrived early and security officers guarded the entrances.

"I expect they will be successful and I'm excited to be here with them," said Beatrice Caban, who teaches English as a Second Language and reported for work before sunrise. "They deserve the same opportunity as everybody else."

José Gilberto Pérez, 16, said he was resettled on Long Island about a month ago after leaving his native Guatemala and crossing the border into Texas.

School is important, he said in Spanish, because "this is a country where people don't speak my language and we have to learn" to have better chances.

"It's better than the bigger school because it's more private," said Bessy López, 16, an immigrant from Honduras attending ninth grade after a month in the United States.

Her stepdad, Moisés Beltrán, a construction worker, said in Spanish, "We make the effort to make sure she comes to school, so she could do well -- not like us who have to struggle."

The future of the children is at stake, advocates and relatives of the children said.

Nelly Salazar, 32, one of the parents, lingered outside after walking with daughter, Lisdi, 15, and son, Jonathan, 17, to the front of the building. She said she hoped this was the beginning of a bright future for them.

"I feel glad," Salazar, a recent immigrant from Guatemala who works cleaning houses, said in Spanish. "We came so they can better themselves and get ahead in life."Community advocates who have been behind the parents said the school's opening was a positive move forward.

"These children should be in the school, in high school," said Diane Goins, Long Island director of the nonprofit New York Communities for Change. "I know they have a problem with overcrowding, but they have so much space in that school that's not being utilized. Maybe this will just give them time to find that room, but I hope this is temporary."

One key concern, Goins said, is that recent immigrants are being kept separate from the rest of the students, and they will need to be integrated into school activities.

Mateo Flores, program director of the Hempstead Community Action Program, which runs a soccer youth league among other programs, said more community resources will be needed to help those children succeed.

"The issue has become a hot topic for everyone," said Flores, adding the district already faced problems with overcrowding before these teenagers arrived. "It also affects children who were already here ... It's both fortunate and unfortunate that our community is growing, because we welcome those children but we need to be prepared."

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