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Rights groups say Hempstead students must have 'access and equity'

Dominique Sharpton, president of the board of the

Dominique Sharpton, president of the board of the group Education for a Better America, is joined by activists from the National Action Network during a rally outside the Hempstead School District administrative building on Friday, March 13, 2015. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

Members of civil rights groups called Friday for "access and equity" in the Hempstead school district, which is under strict state orders to remove enrollment barriers for immigrants and offer them appropriate educational services.

The 10 advocates at the news conference, held outside the administration building on Peninsula Boulevard, said state and federal officials must give the district more money so it can meet the state's edicts.

"We want to affirm the notion that every student, regardless of their immigration status, should be allowed access to public schools," said Marcus Bright, executive director of Education for a Better America. "Access is important, but we also want to make sure that there's equity" in programs and services.

The Manhattan-based National Action Network, headed by the Rev. Al Sharpton, organized the gathering. The activist minister was not present.

His daughter, Dominique Sharpton, board president of Education for a Better America, said there aren't "enough resources" to offer "a quality education" in the district. "You can mandate something, but not to have the resources to back it up, it's just as well as not mandating anything at all," she said.

Their calls echoed local and state officials who say districts affected by a spike in immigrant children need help.

More than 3,000 immigrant kids who entered the country illegally settled in Nassau and Suffolk counties during the 2014 federal fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30. That number put Long Island among the top areas nationally for resettlement of the children, known as unaccompanied minors.

The Hempstead district came under scrutiny last fall after advocates and families charged that more than 30 students were turned away when they sought to enroll.

The crisis, accompanied by classroom overcrowding, spurred opening of a transition school in Hempstead Village. The state Education Department and the state attorney general’s office launched investigations. Earlier this month, the attorney general’s office and the Hempstead school board reached a settlement in which the district agreed to state monitoring until June 2018.

The district also must hire or designate an ombudsman to oversee enrollment, adopt measures to avoid inquiries on children’s citizenship and immigration status, train staff on procedures and retain an independent monitor.

The Board of Regents, which sets education policy statewide, had asked for millions in emergency aid, said Roger Tilles, who represents Long Island on the panel.
“They need some resources to hire teachers, to get new classrooms,” Tilles said. “I hope the legislature will honor the commitment to provide some real resources so Hempstead can actually provide a program” for new students.

State Sen. Kemp Hannon (R-Garden City), whose district includes Hempstead, said he is “trying to be supportive” in negotiations but believes any additional funds should come with guidance to ensure the money is well spent. “We need to make sure they have the management capability to carry all that out,” he said.

Representatives for the offices of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Carl E. Hastie (D-Bronx) did not comment. Scott Reif, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), said the Senate’s budget includes increased school aid, but did not comment on the calls for emergency funding.

Lamont Johnson, president of the Hempstead school board, said the district could use the help. “We don’t necessarily want a blank check,” Johnson said. “We are willing to work with the state for the benefit of the children.”

A bill seeking federal aid for districts receiving immigrants, proposed last year by Reps. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) and Peter King (R-Seaford), did not gain traction. An Israel spokeswoman said the bill will be reintroduced soon.

Freeport resident Reginald Pope, of the Nassau chapter of the National Action Network, said low-income areas have seen the most impact from newcomers moving there.

“Children have to be educated somewhere, but it costs money,” Pope said. “The kids should not have to be sitting on radiators to attend class.”

Carlos Encarnación, an organizer with New York Communities for Change, an advocacy group that brought Hempstead’s enrollment problems to public attention, was at the news conference but expressed skepticism that money alone would address overcrowding and the district’s poor academic performance.

“We support the call for more funding, but the overcrowded classrooms don’t necessarily have to do with the new immigrants but with the dysfunction” of the school board, which should have planned ahead for enrollment increases, Encarnación said. “They are trying to use these immigrant students as scapegoats.”

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