It was more than a great day. It was a grand, flourishing, fabulous day in the Village of Hempstead.
The list of dignitaries who attended the Sept. 3 ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Rhodes School of Humanities and the Arts reflected the profound caring and commitment across decades that resulted in a state-of-the-art building for 800 students, pre-K through grade 5.
“This is a dream come true for the students of the Village of Hempstead,” said Superintendent Regina Armstrong. She traced the timeline from the closing of the condemned 92-year-old Marguerite Golden Rhodes school in 2003, through the 2018 school board vote to propose a new building to the village, and the May 2018 budget vote in which villagers overwhelmingly voted to replace the demolished school.
During the 18 years from the closing of the old school building to the opening of the new, many Hempstead students had to accomplish their learning in temporary pods attached to the six other school buildings in the district.
“Some of those students have not seen a classroom until they reached seventh grade at the middle school,” Armstrong said. Twenty-six pods will be taken down and the students who would have been placed in them will now attend Rhodes.
The eagerness with which incoming students looked forward to the new school was expressed by two Rhodes fifth graders.
“Every time we passed the school,” said Bria Motley, “I would ask my mom to stop so I could check on the progress that the construction workers were making. I had to wonder if the students would have lockers in the hallways, would there be an auditorium for performances, what classes would be offered.”
“All I thought was, how do I get into this school?” said Jonathan Lobo. “It was surreal.”
Jennifer King, a new teaching assistant at Rhodes who has also volunteered at Jackson Annex School, has five children enrolled in the district. She said that, as her children observed the progress of the school construction, “Just every little thing, they got excited, and that was exciting for me because it wasn’t just a school. I see Rhodes Academy as a symbol of hope and of perseverance, of opportunity not just for my kids but all kids in the community.”
The Board of Education members have all been in the village most of their lives. Trustee Lamont E. Johnson called out name after name of bedrock village citizens who attended the ribbon-cutting, including former mayor and Hempstead High teacher Don Ryan.
Board President Olga Brown-Young recalled her father working at the Washington Street School and the renaming of the school for Principal Marguerite Golden Rhodes.
“Rhodes School was like a college to me when I was 8,” said Board Vice President Victor Pratt. “When it got torn down, it hurt. So to see this building is great, and I’m proud of the progress that we are making in Hempstead.”
Former New York State Governor David Paterson reminded the listeners that the Hempstead district had accepted him into mainstream classrooms for primary school in 1960, even though he was legally blind, which enabled him to receive a normal education.
“What’s different about [my presence here] is not that I became governor and then didn’t forget to come back to Hempstead,” Paterson said. “It’s that, if it wasn’t for Hempstead, I would never have become governor.”
Paterson said that overcrowding of Hempstead schools in the early 1960s caused his class to be shifted to a trailer behind the Marshall School.
“It was really disconcerting to force young children to try to learn in a trailer,” Paterson. “There’s always been this struggle in Hempstead -- this desire to overcome obstacles and to provide decent and affordable education for the young people of your neighborhoods.”
Paterson also commended the school district for including humanities and the arts in its concept of the new Rhodes school, at a time when other districts were eliminating the arts from budgets.
“The children who engage in humanities and the arts test twelve points higher on IQ tests, and those tests are taken all over the world,” said Paterson. “So this is a day we’ll all remember, a great day in Hempstead.”
Senior Councilwoman Dorothy Goosby came to Hempstead from Appalachicola, Florida, in 1969. She and her husband Jay raised their two daughters in Hempstead and were involved in school activities.
“Mrs. Rhodes I knew,” said Goosby. “She didn’t play. She really went after those kids and she worked with the parents, so you have the right person that this school was named for, because she worked so hard and gave so much to us.”
State Senator Kevin Thomas and Assemblywoman Taylor Darling both told of their successful joint efforts to get state help for the district.
Thomas said, “Hempstead, as I know, always deserves better and we are going to make sure our children get the best education possible.”
“It is a constitutional right for our students to receive quality education, and quality buildings,” said Darling. “And I feel like if it is not good enough for your child, it should not be good enough for any child. So this is not us asking or begging, this is us receiving what is deserved to us.”
When Lilian McKeithan, a cousin of Marguerite Golden Rhodes, came to the podium, she outlined Rhodes’ multiple achievements, and said, “Marguerite Rhodes had two loves in her life: family and students. … Her focus was the education of children and the education of the educators that were going to educate our children.”
Rhodes taught and served as principal of the Washington Street School, 1969-1986. When she retired in 1987, the school was renamed for her. She went on to establish other education programs at Hofstra.
Accompanied by cousins Thomas Murray and Annie Barnes, McKeithan unveiled a large portrait of Rhodes that will hang prominently in the new school.
“I just want to say this for anyone involved in this achievement,” said Murray. “It is a testament to good people doing good things for good people. And if you worry about the future when you think about the future of this school district, you just can’t.”