After a shelter for homeless families opened this summer within the borders of the Hauppauge school district, a decision by the school superintendent to place all of the shelter’s elementary-age students into Forest Brook has parents on edge.
At a nearly four-hour public school board meeting on Tuesday, dozens of angry Forest Brook parents grilled superintendent Patricia Sullivan-Kriss over her decision.
Among the parents' concerns is overcrowding at the school, which parents already described as full to the brim. But Sullivan-Kriss said there were exactly 10 students from the shelter placed in the school at the moment, and said Forest Brook was the best-equipped school to handle the new students.
“I own that decision and I did it because, in terms of class size and in terms of the supports that are available to students in that school, it was the most appropriate school in which to place our children. That decision was my decision and was not made with any pressure from anybody,” Sullivan-Kriss said, adding that some homeless students have also been placed in Hauppauge’s secondary level schools.
Initially, she said, she was informed by Suffolk County officials in July that there would be triple that number of students seeking schooling in Hauppauge. It is uncertain how long each student would need to be educated in Hauppauge – they could be there for a few weeks, a few months, a few years. It is also uncertain how many more students could flow in during the course of the school year through the shelter, the location of which is confidential as it is protected by a 1987 federal law called the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. In fact, Sullivan-Kriss said she would likely not be able to answer many of the parents’ questions simply because the McKinney-Vento law prevents most information about the homeless shelters and the families residing there from being publicly released.
After parents tied the issue of the homeless students’ placement to large class sizes, trustee Ann Macaluso said she would be willing to discuss the class size policy at an upcoming meeting of the board’s policy committee. Currently the school district caps enrollment in the primary levels at 26 students per class, a number that Sullivan-Kriss said has not been breached this year.
Parents also said they fear that the flow of transient students in and out of their classrooms would cause disruptions for the other students, who are often working together on projects and lessons in consistent groups.
“It’s very disruptive,” said Lawrence Crafa, a six-year resident with two children in the school. “Why should we deal with it all year long? All the elementary schools should deal with the same issue.”
Jennifer Salvaggio, a lifelong Hauppauge resident with two children at Forest Brook, said she was concerned over the consistency of the classroom atmosphere.
“Every time you change a child, you change the dynamic of the classroom. Whether it’s in or out, it’s constantly changing,” Salvaggio said. “These kids have more behavior problems. They require more resources. So why are we not spreading it through all the schools?”
Michael Buscarino, an eight-year resident, wanted the superintendent to “tell us that you’re going to utilize the entire district as a resource for these children” rather than “concentrating this uncertain fluctuation to one school.”
Sullivan-Kriss said she could not make any plans to set in stone, saying she would look at the flow of additional students on a case-by-case basis.
“I have heard you,” she said. “I will do my best. But I have to say on a case-by-case basis because I can’t say which child will come to us next.”
Matthew Giordano, principal of Forest Brook, said he had visited the classrooms into which the homeless students had been placed and talked with the teachers. “It is business as usual,” he said, adding that the classrooms would continue to be monitored.
Some parents raised concerns over whether the same vaccination rules that apply to their children would also apply to the students from the shelter, how the new students’ assessments would be handled, whether the school’s code of conduct – including disciplinary actions such as suspensions – would apply to all students, and whether the district is being reimbursed for the cost of educating those students who are residing in the shelter.
Among the administration’s responses:
- The homeless children have a liaison from the shelter who works with the school district to obtain the students’ immunization records, and from that point works with the families to get the students either vaccinated or exempted for religious reasons.
- Schools have 30 days to assess the students’ proficiency levels in, for instance, reading and math, to assign to them the appropriate classes and resources.
- The code of conduct does apply to all students in the district.
- The school does get reimbursements for each homeless child who becomes a student in the district, which does come close to the per-pupil cost of education.
Although the issue of the homeless students had been discussed over the summer at a school board meeting, some parents said they felt the school had excluded the community from the discussion and said they lost confidence in their school district officials.
“Everyone from Forest Brook feels that were cheated and lied to and it was done underhanded and last minute,” Crafa said. “If we had known about this before the first day of school, we wouldn’t be as angry.”
Sullivan-Kriss responded to these concerns by reassuring the community that she was being truthful even though by law there is much information that cannot be disclosed.“You use words like, ‘I’m lying, I’m evasive.’ I’m not lying to you,” she said. “I told you from the get-go that I might not be able to satisfy your questions. I will look at it on a case-by-case basis and I will do what I believe is the right thing to do.”