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Lafayette High School unveils new turnaround proposal

Lafayette High School wants to reinvent itself as a “newcomer academy” that welcomes new immigrants and refugees who need intensive English literacy assistance. At the same time, it would provide career tracks like one for aspiring bilingual teachers or Homeland Security officers.

School leaders unveiled their new turnaround plan Monday night before about 150 interested community members, parents and district leaders in Lafayette’s auditorium.

“We’re making language not a barrier, but an asset,” said Principal Naomi Cerre.

Lafayette is one of four Buffalo schools – along with Bennett and East high schools, and Martin Luther King Multicultural Institute – that must develop acceptable turnaround plans for next school year in order to avoid closure by the state.

Lafayette is considered a special case because it houses students in grades seven through 12, and because more than 70 percent of its students are refugees and immigrants, many of whom have low literacy skills.

Monday night, Lafayette became the first to present a turnaround plan for public consideration before submitting it to the Buffalo School Board. The plan was developed by the school with assistance from universities, district’s central office staff and other local partners, Cerre said.

Broad outlines of the plan were translated into Burmese, Thai, Arabic and Somali. Though some non-English speaking parents attended the Lafayette presentation and received translation services from interpreters, they were a small fraction of those in attendance.

• Lafayette International Newcomer Academy: This new districtwide program, “LINA,” would be a two-year rapid immersion academy for new English language learners. Students would learn from one of two specialized curricula being incorporated at Lafayette this year, depending on the student’s level of proficiency. Each student would be provided an individualized academic plan.

“We’re not a one-formula school,” Cerre said. “We’re a school that supports the different levels of proficiency, so curriculum has to be designed that way.”

Unlike the school’s current four-year format, LINA students would be welcome to transfer to any other Buffalo school after two years.

The academy, modeled on a similar program in Rochester, has been discussed by school staff for over a year. But now, the program would be only one component of a larger high school program for Lafayette students. With Johns Hopkins University no longer partnering with the school, Cerre said Lafayette would expect additional support for teacher training to come from the district and federal school improvement grant money.

• Lafayette Proper: Newcomer Academy students who remain at Lafayette, or those who transfer in for 11th and 12th grades, would enroll in “Lafayette Proper,” which would include four distinct career tracks and a separate occupational studies track for students with disabilities.

The career tracks would include an Educators Academy, which would encourage students to eventually gain college certification in bilingual education; a Hospitality and Tourism Academy, which would groom students for jobs; and a Homeland Security Academy, which would provide criminal justice and forensics courses for students interested in this career field.

Across all career tracks, students would be able to earn certification as interpreters and translators through workshops provided by the International Institute of Buffalo, said ESL Coach Dan Murtha.

Certain career tracks, including the Homeland Security and Educators academies, would also enable students to gain college credits.

• Three rocks: Murtha said Lafayette’s turnaround model would be based on three “rocks,” or primary areas of interest: An academic, projects-based model of instruction similar to what occurs in the International Network of Public Schools in New York City; a community component that brings in parents and outside public and private partners; and a social/emotional support component that would include having school interpreters receive training as student counselors.

Board member Barbara Nevergold, who attended the session with fellow board members Theresa Harris-Tigg and Sharon Belton-Cottman, said she appreciated that the turnaround plan appeared to have been well-researched.

“I think it’s innovative,” she said. “I think it certainly speaks to the needs of the students who are here in the school already.”

Harris-Tigg said she supported the school’s efforts to develop specialty programs, which are common in other district schools. “They can’t compete in this district without academies here,” she said.

Monday’s unveiling of the plan is meant to boost community support for it and gain required community input before the plan goes to the School Board later this month. The district would have until Jan. 28 to decide on a turnaround plan for Lafayette, which must then be approved by the state.

The State Education Department has indicated that in order for any turnaround plan to be accepted, it would either have to represent an innovative, district-sponsored program – which was what was presented Monday evening – or require the school to be run by the State University of New York or enter into a partnership arrangement with an outside turnaround organization, similar to the role previously held by Johns Hopkins University.

Given the failure of the Johns Hopkins agreement, state officials said they will no longer accept any such partnership arrangement unless an outside partner is given more “work rule flexibility,” which translates into union concessions.

The possibility also remains that an outside charter school could attempt to take over Lafayette, though few board members see this as a realistic possibility, given the specialized needs of the student population.

Cerre said the school is working with “multiple partnerships,” many of which are local and still being finalized. She also said she expects the school to work out more flexible work rule arrangements with the Buffalo Teachers Federation.

BTF President Phil Rumore said he is unaware of any contract changes that need to be made to accommodate Lafayette’s turnaround proposal. But if a two-thirds majority of the school’s faculty vote in favor of a contract modification for the school, the union would not stand in the way.

“We never have,” he said, “but everybody’s got to be on the same page.”

Principal Cerre said Lafayette is interested in developing a consortium of industries that would help provide advice, internships, mentoring and resources to support the school’s career academies, which likely would be phased in over time.

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