Pupils speak 31 languages, head coverings and colorful native attire don't draw a second glance, and teacher Mary Riccio instructs youngsters from 13 countries in her second-grade class.
Buffalo's School 45 is traditionally the first stop for the children of Buffalo's refugee and immigrant families. But despite its reputation for open arms and a giant heart, the "no vacancy" sign is out at the West Side school.
There is no more room for new pupils who don't yet speak English.
"The classes were full -- bursting at the seams -- and there were not enough English-as-a-second-language teachers to take care of the students they already had," said Mary Kay Jou, the International Institute's school liaison.
That dilemma is a sign of the times.
The movement of refugees reflects the world's trouble spots and changes with the ebb and flow of civil strife, famine and war. Currently, many families are arriving from Sudan, Congo and Ethiopia.
"Every time there is a conflict in the world, we end up getting children," said Olga Rico-Armesto, Buffalo's acting director for foreign languages and bilingual education.
In the mid-1990s, the International Institute resettled about 95 people here each year. That number is now up to about 250.
Journey's End helps bring about 200 refugees here each year, compared with just 50 until 1998. In addition, the group plans to help an additional 120 newcomers settle in Buffalo each year from Cuba and Haiti.
City schools are also enrolling more refugee children because local agencies are serving an increasing number of families with children, rather than single people. An estimated 900 refugees arrive in Buffalo annually.
The availability of jobs, the support of an already substantial refugee community and Buffalo's welcoming nature are also draws for families fleeing persecution or war.
"Buffalo is a very nice place," said Elbashir Karrar, a substitute teacher at School 45 and one of about 350 Sudanese refugees to arrive here in the past few years. "People are very genuine and friendly."
Refugees add vitality to the Buffalo area through their enthusiasm, willingness to work hard and appreciation for their new opportunities, said Robert W. Roggie, director of Journey's End.
"These are our prime customers coming into Buffalo," he said. "They're assets, not burdens."
But the system that has evolved to educate foreign-born students is starting to break down.
The stopgap response to School 45's crunch was to assign new foreign-born pupils to Southside Elementary School. But Southside has enrolled 60 newly arrived foreign-born pupils in less than four months and will soon run out of room itself, said Principal Marilyn Brock.
New approaches needed
There is an emerging sense that new approaches are needed.
"This is something that needs to be addressed," said Colleen Carota, principal of School 45. "I see Buffalo as an international city. I don't think that's something that's going to stop."
Students who need intensive help with their English language skills are now assigned largely to School 45 and Grover Cleveland High School, which have sizable numbers of English-as-a-second-language teachers and aides. About 65 percent of the students at Grover Cleveland speak foreign languages. At School 45, the proportion is nearly 50 percent.
During the 1995-96 school year, 182 students enrolled in the Buffalo schools spoke a language other than English or Spanish. By 1999-2000, that figure more than doubled to 380 students. Already this school year, 322 have enrolled.
Spanish-speaking students -- most of them Puerto Ricans -- are the exception, in that they are enrolled in large numbers in schools across the city. As residents of a U.S. commonwealth, Puerto Ricans move freely between the island and the mainland without refugee or immigrant status, just as residents of the mainland move from state to state.
There is now considerable sentiment to also spread out the enrollment of students from refugee families.
While Grover Cleveland remains well-positioned to educate the bulk of the city's immigrants and refugees, the principal there feels international students should be assigned across the city to broaden the horizons of American-born classmates.
"I wish every school could have a pocket of diversity like we do," said Benjamin L. Randle Jr. "It really highlights the concept that differences are good and not bad. These kids share classes, they share extracurricular activities, they share sports. They get to know each other as individuals."
But major hurdles stand in the way.
"You can't get an Arabic teacher," said Superintendent Marion Canedo. "You can't get an Italian teacher. There aren't enough certified English-as-a-second-language teachers, either. The present system is great because all the services are there (at School 45 and Grover Cleveland), but it's not great because all those kids who need so much help are in one place."
Others feel efforts should instead be made to free up more space for refugee children at School 45.
"The school has been a leader in service to this group of children," Roggie said. "There was no dialogue (about limiting enrollment). There was no seeking advice. It has really angered us."
Roggie said space could be made available for newly arrived refugee children by moving others into community schools after they learn English and become accustomed to American culture.
Karrar, who is education chairman of the Sudanese Community Association of Buffalo, said new foreign pupils are suffering because of School 45's enrollment limits.
"An extension should be attached to School 45 to be the center for all these students," he said. "When you find somebody from your own ethnic group, speaking your own language, it is easy to deal with him and be comfortable."
Surge in foreign students
The number of foreign-born students at Grover Cleveland has more than doubled in the past 10 years to about 500 students, and they now make up about 65 percent of the school's total enrollment. About 350 of those students are learning "basic survival skills" in English, and 91 students are functionally illiterate in their native languages.
Many never attended school in their native lands, lived in refugee camps or lost parents to famine, warfare or civil unrest.
"The entire fabric of this school is the understanding of various cultures," Randle said.
Perseverance, teamwork and resourcefulness are crucial at Buffalo's two international schools.
Refugee pupils are teamed with English-speaking "buddies" who offer assistance and support at School 45.
Riccio, who has 18 foreign-born pupils out of 27 in her second-grade class, relies heavily on phonics, speaks slowly and distinctly, and illustrates her lessons with objects. She said some newly arrived pupils go through "silent periods" for as long as three or four months, saying little or nothing until they are comfortable expressing themselves in English.
"You have to let them go at their own pace," she said. "You want them to feel comfortable, and you don't want to intimidate them."
Grover Cleveland offers foreign-born students as many as four periods of English each day and 21 hours of extra help after school each week.
Foreign pupils need models
Ten years ago, about 30 percent of School 45's pupils were born in other countries. Today, about 550 pupils -- or just a bit under 50 percent of total enrollment -- are from foreign lands. But there is no room for more who aren't yet fluent in English.
"When you have a percentage of 50-50, our system works," said Carota, the principal. "But my feeling is that we can't educate the children properly if we have more (non-English-speaking children) than that in a classroom. Then we're talking about not having enough models for them to follow."
Canedo said the assignment of foreign-born students is getting increased attention from a district committee on school choice.
Consideration was given several years ago to equipping individual schools to serve one of the city's larger linguistic or nationality groups, such as Vietnamese, Somali, Bosnian or Arabic students, said David Hess, Buffalo's assistant superintendent for school operations and leadership. But that approach was deemed too limiting and even discriminatory.
Another possible approach would be a "newcomers school" where foreign-born students would spend a year or two in English immersion classes before moving on to existing schools for instruction in other academic areas, Hess said.
Perhaps the biggest plus for refugee students -- who usually make up the bulk of Grover Cleveland's top 10 graduates -- is their determination.
"Most of these kids have a tremendous desire," Randle said. "It's really marvelous. I wish our kids had the same work ethic."
Suki Kim, an English-as-a-second-language teacher at Grover Cleveland, conducts a lively, informal class for 17 students from foreign lands, but insists on the sort of tough discipline common in other countries. Her rules: no gum chewing, no slouching, no late arrivals and no disrespectful behavior.
TABLE: THE TOP 10
The native languages most often spoken by new pupils arriving in Buffalo over the past six years with limited English skills:
Source: Buffalo Public Schools