” EDUCATION IS THE MOST POWERFUL WEAPON WHICH YOU CAN USE TO CHANGE THE WORLD.” – NELSON MANDELA
Lafayette High School is the beating heart of Buffalo’s West Side. It only takes a few moments of walking the hallways of this community institution to realize how unique our city is becoming, how much it is growing and the budding potential of our Cities newest residents. There are over 500 English Language Learners (ELL) speaking over 40 different languages at Lafayette High School this year, all having left their own homelands in search of a new life here in the United States. From Spanish to Karen, from Nepali to Arabic, Somali, and Burmese – Lafayette High School is a true melting pot of cultures, ideas and identities. These students and their families breathe new life into our historic West Side neighborhoods by opening small businesses, buying homes and sharing their rich cultural traditions with all of Western New York through cuisine, clothing and street festivals. And I would have to argue that the pulse of our city’s West Side renaissance is best measured every school day in the classrooms of Lafayette High School. And Lafayette High School is in trouble.
Over 2,000 refugees are settled in Erie County each year – that is more than any other county in the entire State. The vast majority of these new residents eventually choose to reside in the City of Buffalo and specifically in the neighborhoods of the West Side. Given it’s proximity to these growing populations, Lafayette High School has become the natural feeder school for almost all of the teenage immigrants residing in the region. All of these new ELL students are expected to adapt to their new lives in Buffalo, become proficient in the English language and pass complex exams in the same time period as native English speakers. This fact poses serious challenges for these students, their families as well as the school’s staff. And given the recent news that the Buffalo Board of Education has passed a resolution calling for the “phase-out” of Lafayette High School in a move to close the high school permanently as a public school – the entire Buffalo Public School District could potentially be affected by the obstacles to learning that these students face everyday at Lafayette High School. Despite the problems and challenges, there are solutions that Lafayette High School can implement to keep its doors open while effectively supporting and strengthening our immigrant population and the West Side community.
As with numerous public schools in the City of Buffalo, Lafayette High School has its fair share of problems. The most unsettling statistic is Lafayette High School’s graduation rate – just over 25%. But many of the influencing factors of this number are easy to diagnose and address.
Aging Out: Running Out of Time
A huge barrier to graduation for ELL students is age. Immigrant students are expected to attain the same level of achievement designed for native English speakers but in the same amount of time as their more proficient counterparts. Lafayette High School and its teachers work hard everyday to take it’s immigrant high school students from being illiterate to passing exams that regular US citizens are expected to pass – all in only a short few years. Sometimes, the ELL students even arrive illiterate in their first language, having never read or written. These ELL students are held back in the same grade for several years until they have learned the skills necessary to more on.
But once any student turns 21, they are forced to drop out from high school – which means they are denied the opportunity of graduation with a NYS Regents Diploma. A ELL students’ only option then is to take the limited GED courses offered. But unfortunately a GED Diploma does not provide the same amount of opportunities to a graduate as a NYS Regents Diploma in our society. The lack of a high school Regents diploma will negatively impact these ELL students for the rest of their life when applying for work, higher education and other opportunities.
NYSED Exams: Translations Needed
In New York State, students may take their State Regents Examinations in more than just English. If a student is an immigrant to the country, he/she might’ve learned Algebra before arriving here. With the exam translated into students’ first languages, students can prove to the State Education Department that they are competent in Algebra. On the day of the exam, a student can have the English version and translated version on their desk. Only one exam needs to be marked. In addition to having an exam translated, NYSED also offers bilingual glossaries for students to reference, while they take their tests.
Immigrants who mostly arrive in Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and Utica do not receive translations often. Currently, the New York State Education Department translates Regents exams into Chinese, Haitian Creole, Korean, Russian, and Spanish. To give an example, the top languages spoken at Lafayette High School are Spanish, Karen (minority language in Burma), Nepali, Arabic, Somali, and Burmese. Lafayette’s languages are representative of other Upstate cities’ language groups as well.
As you can see, NYSED’s services for English Language Learners need to be expanded to serve the growing refugee populations in the West Side and other Upstate cities. The lack of these vital services to ELL students at Lafayette High School provides yet another impassable obstacle to our most vulnerable students.
It should be noted too that the New York State Education Department translates into only those languages because they are representative of the languages found in NYC. Spanish and Chinese account for 70% of all English Language Learners in New York. At Lafayette High School, Spanish accounts for about 30% of the population. From data available, there are no Chinese speakers at Lafayette High School.
Above are just a few of possible solutions to the challenges facing ELL students and the staff at Lafayette High School. There are many other issues not covered here however it is known that the school lacks resources including proper training and staffing. It is also important to note that there are success stories at other schools in NYS that the Buffalo Board of Education could use as case studies.
If the Buffalo Board of Education chooses to ignore the inherent hardships faced by ELL students at Lafayette High School, and at similar schools across Upstate New York, we will continue to deny our country’s newest residents the most fundamental aspect of the American Dream – the promise that if an individual works long enough and hard enough in this country they will succeed. A flawed and outdated system is preventing ELL students from even having a chance at accomplishing that dream, and Lafayette High School has become the Buffalo Board of Education’s scapegoat. If Lafayette High School is allowed to close not only with this issues not be addressed but that will be compounded when the current ELL student body are sent to other underperforming Buffalo Public Schools. You only need to take a short walk on Grant Street to see the potential of Lafayette High School’s ELL students. We need to make the right decision and give Lafayette High School, the students and staff the tools they need and desire to succeed.
Lastly, I am not a teacher but I am an invested community member who understands first hand that education can lift you up and out of poverty and create a pathway towards a successful life. I have researched and discussed these issues at length with teachers, students and local officials. The one thing that is clear is that the students, staff and dedicated teachers at Lafayette High School do not need to be given up on – they need more time and resources.