Lightning burns Hempstead school, forces move to Franklin Square

600 students scramble to find new home in wake of disaster


As thousands of students returned to school across Nassau County last week for the start of the 2018-19 academic year, one school lay empty, without a child in sight. The Prospect School, a pre-kindergarten and kindergarten program in the Hempstead School District, was barren, after it was struck by lightning in early August, causing a fire.

While no one was injured, the damage displaced nearly 600 children, ages 3 to 5, and Acting district Superintendent Regina Armstrong said that district officials scrambled to find a place to teach the young students. She explained that placing them throughout the district’s other schools would have cost more than leasing a new space, but a lack of local options impeded the effort to accommodate all the students under

one roof.

“We had to drop everything,” Armstrong said. “No one went on vacation. We didn’t have much choice but to find someplace for our students.”

With the help of state and local officials, the district was connected with leaders at St. Catherine of Sienna Parish in Franklin Square and the Diocese of Rockville Centre, which offered the use of the Parish Activity Complex for the current school year. In St. Catherine’s community bulletin, church leaders explained that because the PAC had been a school in the past, it had all the necessary facilities to house Prospect students. The PAC has 22 empty classrooms that are free from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., as well as a large gymnasium, a kitchen and a cafeteria.

“Our facility would be a wonderful place that all the children could stay together,” church officials wrote in a statement. “After a detailed discussion, we reached an acceptable arrangement for the temporary use over a 10-month period, from September to June.”

The agreement came as a relief to Hempstead parents, who were unclear about what would happen to their children’s education after the fire. Sergio Lopez, whose daughter and son will study at St. Catherine’s, attended a meeting with dozens of other parents last week to learn about the details surrounding the school’s temporary relocation. He was worried because other children had already started school, he said.

“I don’t want them to miss out on so many days,” Lopez said. “I just want them in school.”

Prospect Principal Carole Eason told parents that the first day of school was scheduled for Sept. 14, with the first full day of classes set for the week of Sept. 17, but she added that nothing was finalized, because the Hempstead district was still awaiting final approval by the State Department of Education. In the meantime, she informed parents of everything they would need to prepare their children for classes in Franklin Square.

Parents were advised to expect letters from the district informing them of their children’s new bus schedules, which will take them from Hempstead to Franklin Square — a three-mile ride. Eason added that because St. Catherine’s would not have its air conditioning done in time for classes in mid-September, students could swap their school uniforms for lighter clothing if the weather was too hot.

“Obviously, we weren’t ready for something like this to happen, but we’re doing everything we can to get everything done as soon as possible,” Eason said.

As part of its agreement with the parish, the diocese and the state, the Hempstead district will provide its own furniture, internet, and custodial and security staff. The school will need to reset the classrooms three times a week in order to accommodate the church’s afternoon programs. The school will also take care of any snow removal or other property preparations “due to inclement weather.”

According to the contract terms, the Hempstead district will pay about $500,000 to lease the building for the school year. The insurance money from the fire will pay for half of the lease, with the remainder coming from the state lease and district aid. Deputy State Assembly Speaker Earlene Hooper, a Democrat from Hempstead, also announced recently that a $1 million state grant would be available for the district.

“This money is to help the district pay for any other expense and to help accommodate these students who lost their school in that fire,” Hooper said.

“We are truly grateful for the outreach and help we got from our representatives and community, and to St. Catherine’s for taking us in,” Armstrong said.

While the dstrict had not yet finalized the school’s schedule at press time, Hempstead school and district officials hoped that the school would be open and operational by the third week of September.

Children and their parents can stop by the St. Catherine of Sienna School to tour the completed building before the first day of classes.