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$15 million to aid pupils in mastering English here

More than 2,500 students whose first language is not English will be targeted for academic assistance under a $15 million state grant announced Friday for the Buffalo Public Schools.

The Contract for Excellence funds will be used to improve instruction at 17 city schools and will focus on pupils attempting to keep up -- or catch up -- on their work while becoming proficient in English, said Superintendent James A. Williams.

Buffalo now enrolls about 2,550 of those "English language learners," including 1,404 who speak Spanish, 303 from Somalia, 214 who speak Arabic and 213 from Burma.

Parents at a series of public meetings urged that the state funds be concentrated on those pupils, said Amber Dixon, the school system's director of project initiatives.

The district plans to hire Burmese, Arabic, Somali and Spanish-speaking teacher's aides, add social workers and guidance counselors for English language learners, train teachers and add some Saturday programs.

"We're thrilled to enhance our programs and provide additional support to our rapidly growing English language learners population," said Tamara Alsace, director of multilingual education.

The grant also allows the district to continue funding extended school days and school years at 17 schools, and to reduce class sizes and hire math and reading coaches at those schools. In addition, technology coaches will now be added.

Contract for Excellence funding, now in its second year, is provided to 39 school districts that have at least one school in need of improvement. They are required to spend 75 percent of the funds on their neediest students.

"These contracts represent a commitment that districts make to improve student achievement and provide for public involvement and accountability," said Robert M. Bennett, chancellor of the State Board of Regents. "They offer an unprecedented opportunity to link school funding with increased expectation for achievement."

e-mail: psimon@buffnews.com

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