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Language barriers complicate life at ‘failing’ Buffalo high school

Girukwishaka Elize kept quiet his first three years at Lafayette High School, silently trying to decipher what the teachers were saying and fearful that speaking would invite more questions.

“People used to think I was deaf,” remembered the 20-year-old from Tanzania who goes by “GK.” He arrived in Buffalo as a refugee when he was 14.

For Lian Kham Thang, a native of Burma, rifling through the pages of “MacBeth” – required reading in senior-level English – was bewildering.

“I looked at all the words, and they were all, ‘Thy, king.’ I don’t understand,” he recalled.

And Amal Sinchuri, who came here from Nepal, would sit in class wondering what other students were saying to each other in their strange languages, wary that they were speaking badly about him behind his back.

Students at Lafayette High School, one of the Buffalo public schools the state has branded as “failing,” know their school faces many challenges.

Lafayette, along with East High School, has been at the center of a summerlong saga, which was resolved only last week when state Education Commissioner John B. King finally accepted turnaround plans for the two schools after the state had rejected prior district proposals as inadequate. Johns Hopkins University will operate the two schools, with Erie 1 BOCES offering vocational classes.

Lafayette was deemed a failure because of statistics like this: In 2013, its on-time graduation rate was 23 percent.

But the three students and their teachers are adamant that they are not failures.

They say the West Side school is like none other, with a dynamic borne out of the diverse life experiences of the students, many of whom are refugees, immigrants and non-English speakers who have overcome tremendous obstacles in their lives.

Barriers to learning

Lafayette students confirm what the statistics indicate – navigating the tangle of languages spoken at the school, 45 in all, is the school’s greatest challenge.

Of the 854 students at Lafayette in 2011-12, 565 were enrolled in English as a Second Language classes. Announcements over the intercom are recited in multiple languages, and lessons are complicated by classrooms full of students speaking different languages.

Lian Kham Thang’s grasp of English consisted of a simple “yes” or “no” when he started school in Buffalo as an eighth-grader from Burma. He would nod along in class, unsure of what was being said.

When Lian speaks English, he translates conversations in his head to his native tongue, Burmese. During timed tests, he reads over a question three or four times.

In Burma, where economic disparities among the rich and poor are pronounced and students pay to attend school, his expectations growing up were different – 45 out of 100 was considered passing.

Lian’s encounters with Lafayette teachers have been warm, with teachers making themselves available after school for students who want additional help, he said, echoing similar stories from other students. Lian’s art teacher purchased paint, canvas and other supplies for him with money from her own pocket.

This fall, Lian is at Villa Maria College on a full art scholarship.

Starting school late

Language isn’t the only barrier for Lafayette students.

For some refugee and immigrant children, going to school wasn’t always an option – or even safe.

Last year, 244 students across six grade levels at Lafayette identified as Students with Interrupted Formal Education, meaning they started at least two years behind their grade-level peers because of gaps in their schooling in their native lands.

Among them was Manar al Sbaikhawi, the school’s 2013 salutatorian, who went to first grade in Iraq before fleeing the war-torn country for Jordan with her family when she was 7.

“It was war. There was airplanes crashing your whole city,” she said, her practiced, steady voice slowing when pressed for details. “It was devastating.”

After spending five years in a refugee camp, Manar arrived in Buffalo as a 12-year-old and enrolled in seventh grade at another Buffalo school before transferring to Lafayette two years later.

For these students, the normal anxieties of adolescence are compounded by the traumas they experienced in their native lands and refugee camps, along with the culture shock of moving to a new country.

“We’re actually talking about adolescents who are, generally speaking, no matter if they leave their country or stay in the country, going through major identity issues,” said Claire Sylvan, executive director of the Internationals Network for Public Schools in New York City.

Some Lafayette advocates have asked that the school be judged on a lower graduation standard, pointing to some international schools in New York City as a model to consider. But the state has ruled out that possibility. King has noted that other schools in the state with high immigrant and refugee populations graduate a greater number of students than the Buffalo schools.

The assumption that schools with high numbers of students who are learning to speak English would have low graduation rates “is false, proven false by schools all over the country,” King said.

“Do the language challenges of students at Lafayette need to be addressed? Absolutely,” he said. “Is that an important part of the plan that Buffalo should put forward? Absolutely. Has Lafayette had a significant concentration of English language learners for some time? Absolutely. Has Buffalo repeatedly failed to provide them with adequate supports? Absolutely.”

Lost in translation

During the school day at Lafayette, two translators who speak Burmese, Karen, Arabic and Somali between them are available to assist students. Interpreters from various local agencies are assigned to translate during mid-terms and final exams.

Regents exams are an entirely different story.

For Regents tests given in January and June, editions of five exams were available in five languages other than English – traditional Chinese, Haitian Creole, Korean, Russian and Spanish. Bilingual dictionaries were also permitted.

But the top five spoken languages among Lafayette students in 2012 were Spanish, Karen, Nepali, Burmese and Arabic.

The school district hires between 12 and 15 interpreters to translate the languages spoken most among students for the Regents exams. Still, Principal Naomi Cerre said, Lafayette’s students enter the test at a disadvantage because they aren’t taught the material in their native language.

Several times, Cerre said, she has requested the district hire 10 more translators for the school but was told it wouldn’t be possible for fiscal reasons. In the last five years, the district has increased spending on multilingual services, which includes translators, from $12,000 to $100,000, according to district spokeswoman Elena Cala.

The district adds multilingual faculty when possible, but it’s difficult to find interpreters who cover all the dialects spoken, Cala added.

The Regents tests have been a challenge for GK. In June, he learned he still had one English Regents exam to pass, preventing him from receiving his diploma.

“I was about to give up,” the native Swahili speaker said, his eyes cast downward.

Ultimately, GK decided to spend the months after his senior year preparing to retake the exam. From 8 to 10:30 a.m., he went to summer school. After that, he headed to a local community college, where he stayed until 3 p.m. for additional help.

GK retook the exam in early August and just found out he didn’t pass.

“I had really tried hard. I couldn’t believe it,” he said.

The availability of the Spanish language exam was a help for Elisandra Mercado, who moved here from Puerto Rico with family when she was 11. But she’s watched close friends fall short of graduation because of one or two failed exams. Before attending Lafayette, Elisandra was enrolled at another Buffalo school, where she felt out of place.

“Everybody spoke English, and I didn’t know that much. It’s hard because everyone looks at you like, ‘What are you saying?’ ” she said. “You feel rejected.”

‘Second birthplace’

Not so at Lafayette, where colorful flags from Mexico, Nepal, China and several other nations are lined one after another in the cafeteria – a daily reminder of the school’s international enrollment. In the main hallway, a world map adorns a wall. Purple yarn points, on one end, to the countries students hail from. The other end of the strings converge on Buffalo, where a small piece of paper reads “Welcome to Buffalo, N.Y.”

“You come at 8:20 in the morning and you hear all these languages. It’s good for us to learn about other cultures. It’s great to have a school with that much diversity,” said Elisandra, who can quickly tick off the names of friends from the Dominican Republic, Burma, Korea and Cuba.

Diversity is built into the dynamic of the school, students say. The differences are something they proudly cherish, a place where cultures are exchanged and where they’ve forged bonds they intend to keep.

“Lafayette means second birthplace,” said Amal Sinchuri, who moved to Buffalo from Nepal when he was 13.

One Regents exam shy of graduating, GK made plans to return to school this month with hopes of passing the English test in January. He’s worked too hard to stop, he reasoned.

“I want to go,” he said. “I still have the heart to do it.”

Though he’s upset about not passing the exam in August, he looked forward to seeing familiar faces, especially his former English teacher.

“I don’t feel like I could go to any other school,” GK said. “Lafayette is like my home.”