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Opinion

Editorial: Hempstead is required by law to take new students

First day of school at Hempstead High School

First day of school at Hempstead High School on Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2014 in Hempstead. Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

Every child in New York between the ages of 5 and 21 is entitled to a public school education. That's the law. So what's been happening in Hempstead is not only shameful, it's illegal.

Community activists say the district has turned away at least 34 Hispanic students -- some district insiders put the number at twice that -- and not allowed them to attend school for weeks. The district cites the logistical difficulties of dealing with an influx this fall of more than 1,200 new students. Some classrooms now have as many as 50 students.

That kind of surge would overwhelm many districts. A school system as dysfunctional and poor-performing as Hempstead, which already consigns hundreds of students to dozens of trailers, is singularly ill-equipped for the challenge. Making the task more difficult: Hempstead's decision earlier this year to switch from nine periods a day to eight, reducing the district's flexibility and the number of courses it offers.

Hempstead officials plan to open space in a vacant building by midweek to educate at least 150 high school students. But it is troubling that officials seem to have acted only after community advocates for the children publicized their plight. Most of the students being moved are in the early stages of learning English. Some might not even be literate in Spanish, but all need intensive instruction and now have missed weeks of school. Concentrating them in one place seems like sound educational strategy. But it might run afoul of civil rights laws on segregation. And the entire mess threatens to exacerbate racial tensions in a district that critics say has underserved Hispanic students, who now outnumber blacks.

The state Education Department has asked Nassau BOCES to investigate Hempstead's enrollment procedures and report back by Thursday, a good move. Department personnel will be in the district this week to investigate, another solid step. Some of the new students are among the thousands of unaccompanied minors who crossed the border with Mexico earlier this year. Hempstead surely could use state and federal money to help educate the recent arrivals.

But the biggest onus is on Hempstead's officials to get these children into classrooms, where they should have been long ago.

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