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District must give teachers the skills needed to help immigrant children

With the observation of a specialist on non-English speaking students, Johns Hopkins University may already have proven its worth as a partner in improving Buffalo schools. Speaking to a News reporter, Margarita Calderon noted that teachers at Lafayette High School need help improving their instructional skills with immigrant students.

“Teachers have not been provided the appropriate professional development that is necessary for them to change their practice,” she said.

Finally, a place to start.

Lafayette is one of the Buffalo School District’s worst-performing schools, with a graduation rate that plummeted from an abysmal rate of 36 percent in 2009-10 to an unthinkable 21 percent. But the school also is the educational home to a high concentration of non-English speaking students. In 2012, nearly half of the school’s senior class had limited proficiency in English.

Indeed, four of the district’s six failing high schools – the others are International Prep, Riverside and Burgard – had the district’s highest ratios of non-English speakers, mostly immigrants and refugees. Challenges like that make a difference. They don’t excuse the schools or the district from meeting their obligations to those students, but they certainly have to be factored into how best to move forward.

There are other challenges, as well. Two schools have the district’s highest percentage of students with disabilities. At four of them, more than 80 percent of students live in poverty. All but one of the six have consistently recorded some of the district’s worst attendance rates over the last four years. And all six posted steeply declining graduation rates between 2010 and 2012, while, at the same time, their populations of special education, immigrant and impoverished students have ballooned.

And there lies another issue that needs to be confronted: the academic disparities between public high schools that choose which students to accept and those that accept all comers. It’s a double-edged sword, providing a safety valve for high-achieving students, but creating conditions for easy failure in the remaining schools.

All of these represent difficult issues for the district to confront. But other districts have made headway in these areas, so there is no reason to accept that Buffalo can’t also make progress. That is the task, however complicated it may be.

While the district doesn’t dare move forward on only one front, it is fair to note that some problems are more intractable than others. The district has to cope with the facts of poverty; it can’t cure them. It can’t deny educations to special education students or immigrants.

But what the district can do, more or less immediately, is to learn how better to teach students who don’t speak English. That task requires special skills, it should be plain, and no one is born with them. They have to be learned.

That’s an obvious place to begin improving the performance of these schools. As Calderon noted, the district needs to focus on training teachers on the best ways to instruct students whose classroom time is hindered by a language barrier. That’s a doable task, and one that will make a difference.

After years of dealing with non-English speaking students, it is startling that this training hasn’t already been provided. That calls for an examination of how the district evaluates and responds to the challenges it faces, but for the moment, at least, better late than never.