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Merryl Tisch, Regents chief, visits Roosevelt, Hempstead classrooms, calls for more government aid

Merryl Tisch, Chancellor of the New York State

Merryl Tisch, Chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents (left) and Assembly Member Earlene Hooper visit a bilingual first grade class at Roosevelt Elementary School Thursday, Oct. 23, 2014. Photo Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

A top state education policymaker got a firsthand look Thursday at classrooms in Roosevelt and Hempstead that are scrambling to meet the needs of unexpected new arrivals from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and other countries.

Chancellor Merryl Tisch of Manhattan, with the help of translators, welcomed students to America and made a pitch for more federal and state cash assistance for districts facing an influx of hundreds of unaccompanied immigrant youngsters.

"America was built on immigration, and we plan to see that is respected," said Tisch, who heads the state's policymaking Board of Regents. "We cannot ask financially strapped school districts -- districts that have cut music and art -- to take this on without help."

Tisch acknowledged, in answer to a reporter's question, that the state has not calculated the extra cost of educating the new arrivals -- more than 2,600 youngsters ages 17 and under in Nassau and Suffolk counties alone, according to federal statistics.

The Regents board is scheduled to recommend a statewide financial-aid package in December and is considering at least a half-dozen other priorities in addition to more money for immigrant students.

Tisch's call for more money focused on the needs of mostly Spanish-speaking students won immediate bipartisan expressions of support. The state Assembly's deputy speaker, Earlene Hooper (D-Hempstead), who accompanied her, endorsed the concept, as did state Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport), chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

"What districts face is an onslaught that they couldn't have planned for," said Flanagan, who raised the possibility that more aid may be appropriated in a special session before year's end.

Pressures on local schools that have registered disproportionate numbers of immigrant students were evident in classes visited Thursday.

In some Hempstead classes, teachers who had just been assigned their students on Wednesday were trying to determine the amount of schooling those teens had had in their own countries, and the extent of their English-language skills, if any. Many of the 14- and 15-year-olds at a just-established "transition school" in a district-leased building had previously been turned away by the district.

One teacher, Vanessa Senior, whose 20 students were mostly Honduran, said one boy had told her he hadn't attended school at all until arriving in Hempstead.

"Right now, I'm getting a sense of whether they can read in their own language," Senior said.

Roosevelt enrolled its new immigrants earlier this month -- an effort that Tisch praised. At Washington Rose Elementary School, bilingual classes taught half in Spanish and half in English were well underway.

One second-grade class of 20 was getting a math lesson in Spanish reflecting new Common Core academic standards, which draw heavily on diagrams to illustrate numerical concepts. On the blackboard was the question: "¿Cuales es el numero que muestra el modelo?" or "What is the number that the model demonstrates?"

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