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Immigrant children headed to Hempstead 'transition school,' officials say

Hempstead School Board President Lamont Johnson met with

Hempstead School Board President Lamont Johnson met with community members and parents to discuss the turning away of students throughout the district, Oct. 17, 2014. Credit: Johnny Milano

The Hempstead school district plans to place Hispanic children who are recent immigrants to the United States in a "transition school" starting Wednesday -- about a mile away from the middle and high schools where many have sought to enroll since September, district officials said.

The use of space at 100 Main St., the renovated former bus terminal in the heart of Hempstead Village, is an attempt to meet the district's obligation to educate all children and quell the anger of Hispanic parents, sponsors and community activists, who have complained the youths have been turned away because of overcrowding, lack of teachers and unfinished schedules.

Most of the children are recent immigrants -- some of whom entered the country illegally this year as unaccompanied minors, fleeing violence and poverty in Central America -- and were released to relatives and guardians here.

Advocates welcomed progress, but said they have to see how the transition school will be run. "We need to make sure it's not a place to put kids there and forget about them," said Jason Starr, the New York Civil Liberties Union's Nassau director. "We want to monitor that students are supported with counseling and programs and that they have the full high school experience, including extracurricular programs."

Monday morning at Hempstead High School, district officials escorted 10 Hispanic children to get identification cards and class schedules after a handful of residents arrived with the teenagers to make sure they were enrolled.

Full-day routine planned

The youths are to return Wednesday to HYPE Academy -- an acronym for "Helping Youth Pursue Excellence" -- an overflow school on the second floor of the 65-year-old Main Street building. The entrance is between a Hispanic travel agency and a shuttered Dunkin' Donuts, and across the street from a Nassau County civil and criminal courthouse.

"They'll still have the opportunity to have a full-day schedule, with gym and everything else, as a transition," Associate Superintendent James Clark said. "We will move them from there to high school" and to eventually seek "a Regents diploma."

The district was sending a letter Monday and will make calls Tuesday to let parents and sponsors with whom some children are living know the transition school is opening, Clark said.

District officials said they did not know how long the district plans to keep the Hispanic children in the location.

Clark said the district is doing all it can after it was "overwhelmed by over 700 kids" as new students. Staff worked to hire certified teachers and plan schedules as the site was being prepared.

Students assigned to the Main Street location "will get content-area instruction" in math, science, social studies and English as a second language, he said.

At least 34 Hispanic kids have been left out of classes, say advocates from the nonprofit New York Communities for Change.

Budget, lost days concerns

The transition school plan came after school board President Lamont Johnson on Friday gave his assurance to community advocates and parents that the district would accept students. The district also is under pressure from state education Commissioner John B. King Jr., who in an extremely rare move ordered Nassau BOCES' interim superintendent to investigate Hempstead's enrollment procedures and report to King by Thursday.

Johnson accompanied the small group of parents and kids inside the school Monday morning. "I'm here to assist," Johnson said. "We haven't turned anyone away, and when I was aware children didn't have their schedules, I made sure they got their schedules."

Some of the adults there Monday said the teenagers had been turned away from the high school multiple times. "We hope that this will come to happen, God willing," María Serrano, 54, said in Spanish. She's a sponsor of one of the children.

"All we want is for them to have a better future and to have their classes and recover their lost time," Serrano said.

The student who lives with her, José Martínez, 17, waited in a corner, wearing a backpack that held notebooks and pens. An unaccompanied minor who arrived from El Salvador in June, he said he is especially interested in learning all about computers.

"I am ready," he said in Spanish. "I want to learn English and to be somebody in life."

The Hempstead situation illustrates the dire straits of districts seeing surges in enrollment by immigrants.

It remained unclear whether the state Board of Regents could provide a quick infusion of extra state aid in the current school year, as other districts are lobbying for restoration of state aid that was cut during the recession.

"I think it's unlikely, certainly, for political and practical reasons," said Roger Tilles of Great Neck, who represents Long Island on the board and attended a Regents committee meeting on state aid Monday.

With John Hildebrand

and Jo Napolitano

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