When Buffalo started a program for students with limited English and little or no formal education, the doors opened last September with fewer than 60 kids.
Six months later, enrollment has grown fourfold to nearly 240.
“And counting,” Principal Teena Jackson said.
This “Newcomer Academy” is one of several programs Buffalo embarked on this year to try to address the hundreds of city kids who don’t fit into the mold of a traditional high school student.
A fast-growing number of those are from far-flung countries who have resettled in Buffalo in recent years.
Others are students who – for one reason or another – have fallen behind, whether because they’ve bounced from school to school, or run afoul of the law, or suffered the loss of a parent or are themselves parents caring for babies.
They’re overage, haven’t earned enough credits, off track to graduate and at risk of dropping out. In fact, roughly 1 out of 5 high school students in Buffalo are overage for their grade level, according to district estimates. Nearly 600 of those also are undercredited.
In many cases, they bring down the graduation rates at high schools throughout the city.
“It’s a big issue here,” Superintendent Kriner Cash said, “and we didn’t have enough treatment and programming for them.”
Now, as many as five “pathway” programs either have opened or will open this year in Buffalo – a big shift for a district whose only other options for years were adult education or its Alternative School.
The Pathways Academy at East High School opened in September to steer over-aged freshmen onto a three-year track toward graduation.
“Virtual” pathway programs will be launched this year at three other schools to help students catch up on courses and recover credit online so they can get their diploma.
And the Newcomer Academy – a welcome center, of sorts – took over the third floor of Lafayette High School at the start of this school year to provide more English and academic support for some of Buffalo’s brand-new immigrants in grades 7 through 12.
Jackson peeked into one of the eighth-grade classrooms at Lafayette on a recent morning.
“Who can raise their hand and tell me what the weather is like today?” the teacher asked.
“Sunny,” one boy said.
“No, no, no, not sunny,” a girl interrupted, “cloudy.”
“OK,” the teacher said, “we’ll say partly cloudy.”
The students at the Newcomer Academy tend to be older for their grade level because of their interrupted education during their journey to the United States.
Each classroom has roughly 20 students and at least two teachers, including a core instructor and one certified in teaching English as a new language. Twenty-one languages, from Arabic to Tigrinya, are spoken among the students. Attendance is high and behavior problems are low, Jackson said.
Before the principal left the room, one of the boys handed her a handmade card wishing her a “Happy Women’s Day.”
“The kids are fantastic,” Jackson said. “They are very motivated. They are very polite and very, very appreciative of being at school. They will thank you every day.”
Buffalo over the years took in millions of dollars in government grants to help turn around its struggling high schools, but still saw little – if any – academic gains.
“What we found is that by not providing differentiated pathways, those schools were closing,” said David Mauricio, the district’s chief of strategic alignment and innovation.
Now – as Buffalo gears up to open or relaunch several high schools that are more career-oriented – the district wants to make sure these pathway programs are part of the formula.
“We’ve learned from our past mistakes and are creating other options,” Mauricio said.
The Pathways Academy at East High School was started to provide more individual attention to students who are overage – 16 or older – as they enter high school.
It opened this school year with a freshman class of 75.
The program includes a job coach, social worker and guidance counselor. It offers smaller class sizes, mentoring, life skills, an advisory period and a three-year track for graduating.
“The goal is to expose them to as many opportunities in the community for job employment,” said Maria Conrad, the assistant principal.
Buffalo’s “virtual” pathway is expected to launch this year using the GradPoint Online Credit Recovery program, which largely targets students who have already taken a course but didn’t earn credit because they either failed the class or Regents exam.
While already in use by some schools – and growing more common among urban districts struggling to graduate students – the online program will be more formally packaged at three locations: Burgard, Riverside and South Park high schools.
Dedicated computer labs and flexible hours will allow students to go through the program at their own pace. A teacher will be at each site to answer questions and keep students on track. A counselor also will be on staff.
It’s targeted at those students who should be nearing the end of their high school career, but have little chance – if any – to graduate because they don’t have enough credits, said Sabatino Cimato, associate superintendent for school leadership.
“What we find is when kids get to that point it’s game over,” Cimato said. “They give up. They drop out and they don’t feel like they’re being supported any longer.”
The Newcomer Academy at Lafayette, meanwhile, is in response to the influx of immigrants and refugees resettling in Buffalo, the fastest-growing segment of the school district’s population.
Since 2008, the number of Buffalo students whose first language is not English has jumped to more than 5,600 – a 76 percent increase, according to district figures.
The students are assessed in their own language to determine how far along they are academically and then partnered with a classmate who speaks their language, Jackson said.
“Once we get that foundation, it’s getting them to speak English,” Jackson said, “and believe it or not it doesn’t take very long.”
Jackson stopped into the seventh-grade room next door, where the lights were off and the teacher and students were discussing the slides projected onto a screen.
Four girls sat at a table in the back corner with a teacher’s aide who speaks Arabic. The four are from Sudan, had arrived within the past two weeks and were still getting acclimated to their unfamiliar surroundings.
Early on, one of the girls often cried when spoken to, but on this morning she was reading her address and phone number out loud to her teacher.
“Very good,” her teacher said.
Other schools across the district continue to take in new immigrants and refugees, as well, but may not have the same time or resources that this program has to offer, said teacher Molly Eldridge.
“The school should be bigger,” Eldridge said.
The program, in fact, has plans to grow to as many as 350 students by next year, Jackson said.
As students become more confident in their English and academics, they can transfer to other city schools, although Jackson encourages them to stay at least two years.
“The idea that everyone is a newcomer, and all dealing with the same challenges, I think creates a more supportive environment,” said teacher Ray Kelley.
On this morning, Kelley and his colleague, Kelly Cooper, were teaching English Language Arts to their lively class of eighth-graders who came to them from some of the most troubled places around the world – Tanzania, Syria, Yemen, Malaysia, Congo, Uganda.
The teachers use a lot of visuals to engage the students and make connections to their lives. Cooper showed the students a scene of people outside The Louvre in Paris and asked the class to create a story based on what they see.
“These people have freedom to travel,” one boy said, “and come to France to take pictures.”