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NY education commissioner tells Hempstead schools to enroll all children regardless of immigration status

Students listen to a lecture on May 1,

Students listen to a lecture on May 1, 2013. Credit: Heather Walsh

The state on Friday reminded schools throughout New York that they must, by law, enroll all school-age children -- with the notice arriving the same day that parents in Hempstead asked school officials to allow their kids to attend classes.

The letter follows state Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. on Thursday ordering Nassau BOCES to investigate Hempstead's enrollment procedures for 34 Hispanic students who allegedly have been turned away from school since last month.

Deputy Commissioner Cosimo Tangorra Jr. told the heads of all public, charter and nonpublic schools that they must "understand and comply with their obligation to enroll all resident students regardless of their immigration status."

Tangorra said the department was offering guidance to districts "regarding the difficulties faced by unaccompanied children who have recently arrived in the United States and have attempted to enroll in public school districts."

Last night about a dozen parents and their children attended a meeting on the issue in Hempstead at which school board president Lamont Johnson and another trustee represented the district.

Elsy Aguilar, 35 and originally from Honduras, said last night that she is heartsick to see her daughter, Diana Hernandez, 16, sit home day after day.

Since the start of the school year her daughter has arrived at her high school every Monday or Wednesday at the district's request, only to be told to leave and come back later. But two weeks ago Aguilar said the district told the girl to wait at home for a phone call or letter telling her when she could attend.

"My daughter is never going to get that time back," she said.

Diana said she was a good student in Honduras, excelling at math and science.

Johnson said the district will accept the students on campus Monday but could not guarantee them a seat in a classroom because of overcrowding.

He also said that he did not know students were alleged to have been turned away until earlier this week.

Activists based in Hempstead say at least 34 children living within the district's borders have been denied an education since the start of the school year.

Parents say their children would visit the schools weekly only to be told the district had no room, no teachers for them and that their schedules were not ready.

King's mandate focuses on recent immigrants, many of whom came to Long Island as part of an influx of children -- some unaccompanied minors -- arriving illegally from Central America this year.

A spokesman for the state Education Department said this is the first time in memory that an education commissioner has intervened in an enrollment issue.

Johnson said Friday afternoon that he agrees with King's directive and welcomes help from the Nassau Board of Cooperative Educational Services.

He said district administrators would craft a plan to help the students catch up after missing weeks of instruction.

Community advocates said they hope the district places the children in the classroom as soon as possible.

"We wanted the kids in school yesterday," said Lucas Sánchez, director of the Nassau County office of the nonprofit New York Communities for Change.

"The parents and the kids have the same three questions we raised from the beginning: 'When will school start for us?'; 'How will the district make up the hours of classroom time lost?' and 'What will the district do to hold the individuals responsible for this accountable?' "Nassau BOCES Interim Superintendent James T. Langlois said in a statement that he is complying with King's wishes and will report his findings by Thursday. The commissioner has asked him to find out the number of students involved, whether they were being provided instructional services and the specifics of the enrollment process for these children.

Roger Tilles, Long Island's representative on the Board of Regents, said he wanted outside groups -- including local colleges and the state Education Department -- to work with Hempstead but would need the cooperation of its board.

The Oct. 28 special election between incumbent Betty Cross and challenger Maribel Touré "will determine if we can form partnerships with the district," Tilles said.

King removed Cross from the board in August after Touré challenged her vote totals.

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