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No language, no learning Girl's plight calls into question the way Buffalo serves its Spanish-speaking students

Nicole Marrero has attended Buffalo's alternative school for more than two years but says she can't understand her teachers, her classmates or her assignments.

Nicole, who moved to Buffalo with her family from Puerto Rico six years ago, speaks fluent Spanish but very little English.

And none of her teachers, including her English as a Second Language instructor, speak Spanish.

So Nicole, 15, sits in class, unable to understand what is being said. She has been doing this for two years.

"I'm lost," Nicole said, speaking through an interpreter. "I don't know what to do. I don't feel good because I don't learn anything."

Nicole is not alone. At least three other Spanish-speaking students at Academy School @ 44 on Broadway face the same problem, according to Ralph Hernandez, the West District member of the Buffalo Board of Education.

Hispanic community leaders say Nicole's situation highlights longtime deficiencies in the teaching of Spanish-speaking students in Buffalo.

"This is not an isolated case," said Lourdes Iglesias, executive director of Hispanics United of Buffalo. "We see things like this all the time. What they are doing to this child is educational neglect at its worst. We hold parents accountable every day. Who holds the superintendent and the school district accountable?"

Buffalo school officials denied Nicole's claims that she doesn't speak English, but refused to answer questions about whether she has the language skills to function appropriately in a classroom in which English is the only language spoken.

"I've had conversations with Nicole in English," said Gregory Mott, principal of Academy School.

Nicole is "average to above average in English, at best," Mott said, adding that he feels her English skills are appropriate for her age.

But in a conference call with a reporter, Mott and three other Buffalo school officials would not answer questions about whether Nicole can function adequately in an English-language classroom or school environment.

The officials said they could not answer that question because "we have some very strict [legal] limitations" involving student privacy, said Michael Looby, the district's general counsel.

Nicole has been identified as a student eligible for bilingual services, Hernandez said. He learned that she had been given this designation during a visit to the school last week.

"It's right here," Hernandez said. "It's on the list I got from Greg Mott himself."

Mott confirmed her eligibility in a conversation with him, Hernandez said.

The district spends millions of dollars a year educating students whose first languages are not English, Hernandez said, but the situation at the alternative school is intolerable.

"It's a total failure on the part of the district," Hernandez said. "We have, without a doubt, violated these kids' civil rights."

A school district official criticized Hernandez for his role in bringing Nicole's situation to light.

"This practice of individual board members governing through the press instead of at the board table has reached an unacceptable level," said Associate Superintendent Will Keresztes. "It's exploitive of families and insulting to principals and teachers who are tireless in their efforts to bring intervention to students.

"It's also unfair to other board members who exercise their authority professionally in convened board meetings," Keresztes continued. "When the school district has not met a parent's expectations, we will remedy their concerns. We will restore their confidence. But not this way, not through conflict in the press."

In an interview conducted last week through an interpreter, Nicole and her mother, Elizabeth Fernandez, said they are angry, saddened and perplexed.

Nicole said she doesn't take exams and doesn't get report cards. When she quit going to school for two months last year, her mother was cited for educational neglect.

According to a legal guide published by the New York State Bar Association and the New York State Association of School Boards, school districts are not legally required to provide bilingual education or ESL programs.

However, districts must have policies detailing how students with limited English proficiency will be educated, and those policies must include "assurances that such students will have access to appropriate services," the guide says.

The problems at Academy School run deeper than the situation Nicole faces.

A state Education Department report last July said the school fails to meet standards on instructional time, lacks supplies and equipment, does not offer challenging work for many students, assigns teachers to subjects they are not certified to teach and has a serious attendance problem.

The school, for students in grades seven through 12, opened in 2006 to assist at-risk youngsters and reduce violence in other city schools. Last year, just 9 percent of the school's seventh-graders were proficient in English and 6 percent were proficient in math.

When the report was released, state Board of Regents Chancellor Robert M. Bennett said that the school should be closed if it doesn't improve dramatically.

School district officials said they are implementing a broad series of recommendations made by the state review team.

Buffalo has extensive programs for Spanish-speaking students, and Nicole did receive bilingual assistance after moving here in 2002.

At two elementary schools, she was taught English in one class and received Spanish-language instruction in her academic subjects.

But after she was assigned to the alternative school in September 2006, Nicole was without the assistance of Spanish-language teachers, and still did not speak enough English to understand written material or verbal instruction, she and her mother said.

They said the assignment to the alternative school was made after Nicole missed about 50 days of school the previous year. Fernandez, a single mother, said she suffered from depression and physical problems, and that those difficulties affected Nicole and her five other children.

Things for Nicole only got worse at the alternative school.

For much of her time there, Nicole said, she has been given computerized, English-language reading assignments that she doesn't understand.

When she finds words in the readings that matched those in the related questions, she copies those portions of the readings as her answers, even though she doesn't know what they mean.

This year, Nicole said, she spends an hour each day with a well-intentioned ESL teacher, but the teacher does not speak Spanish and they make little progress. The rest of Nicole's day is spent in classes where only English is spoken and she says she doesn't understand anything.

Fernandez said she asked school officials last year about final exams, and was told her daughter wouldn't be taking any.

"I feel horrible," she said. "I'm very angry. All she's doing is failing. She's been in seventh grade the last three years."

Fernandez said she was assigned a social worker after being charged with educational neglect because her daughter was missing school.

The social worker contacted Hernandez, an advocate of programs for students with limited English proficiency.

Hernandez said that he and Fernandez met with School Superintendent James A. Williams on Oct. 8, and that the superintendent said he would transfer Nicole to another school.

School officials said they have been unable to reach Fernandez to make those arrangements.

Hernandez said Nicole's situation underlines the "highly fragmented, inadequately defined and poorly monitored" bilingual and ESL efforts in Buffalo. He said the four-year graduation rate for students with limited English skills is just 38 percent.

"Over 90 percent of these students never go to college," Hernandez said. "Instead, many work in fast-food restaurants, dead-end jobs or turn to crime because they can't read, write or speak English. This is a disgrace, and we must not permit it to continue."

Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore has been a frequent critic of Academy School @ 44, charging that it has been warehousing at-risk students and that millions of dollars have been wasted there on contracts for services from ResulTech, a private Maryland firm.

Nicole's difficulties should have been identified and dealt with long ago, Rumore said.

"This is another form of child abuse," he said. "Whoever is responsible should be fired -- I think they should be sent to jail. How are we ever going to replace those two years of the child's life?"

e-mail: psimon@buffnews.com

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