High percentage of Lafayette students struggle with language

Mar 20, 2014

As Buffalo Public school parents kicked off a campaign Monday to demand transferring their children out of failing city schools, one school continues working on its turnaround plan. Leaders of Lafayette High School are trying to improve their graduation rates. In our Focus on Education report, WBFO's Eileen Buckley reports there's not an unwillingness to learn, but it's a matter of some students learning a new language.

World flags line the hallway inside Lafayette High School to represent the many different countries of the school's student population.
Credit WBFO News photo by Eileen Buckley

Inside a classroom at Lafayette High School international students were learning English. They're from many parts of the world including -- the Congo, Burma, Somalia, Asia and Russia.  40-percent are refugees who have little or no formal education. 70-percent of students at the school don't speak English.

"It's hard to learn English, but I learn it because I'm a hard worker," Zarifa is 10th grader from Moscow.

Imagine trying to take a test under the new Common Core Learning Standards when you are still learning English. Zarifa said she understands the material, but in the translation of test taking it's difficult.

"Some words -- it's hard to know what's the definition of the word means," said Zarifa. 

As you speak with the international students you quickly realize the depth of their language skills. Some speak up to three different languages, adding English as their fourth.   Lafayette is considered a failing school because of low graduation rates.  In 2013 just 23-percent of the students graduated.

Students learning English in a classroom at Lafayette.
Credit WBFO News photo by Eileen Buckley

"We have an incredible dropout rate and that affects our graduation rate."

Lafayette High School Principal Naomi Cerre arrived three years ago.  At that time some students were arriving at the school at the age of 19 and placed as freshman, but because of their age, many needed to earn money, opted to go to work and dropped out.

"So that is a huge influence and we've seen that trend in the data.  Statistically students who came in freshman year, when I was here, they are no longer here -- there is a huge percentage of that," said Cerre

But now the school is targeting issues to keep students in the classroom.

Students learning lessons inside Lafayette.
Credit WBFO News photo by Eileen Buckley

"We have reading specialists, now for the first time ever, at the high school. We need wellness in our community and that means that doing the right thing for students who have different proficiency levels, who come in from refugee camps who may not even have held a pencil before or even ever seen print either in their own language or any language. It's a difficult process and it kind of dehumanizes that person,' said Cerre.

Lafayette continues to work on its turnaround plan with Johns Hopkins.  Principal Cerre said her
her school is in desperate need of resources and support to customize learning for their students.
The school is planning to present to the school board --- a new program design to include English immersion. 

Last Friday State Assemblyman Sean Ryan visited the school and urged lawmakers in Albany to approve education aid that would provide more funding for schools with high populations of non-English speaking students.  Ryan noted international students are struggling with Common Core testing.      

Lafayette principal Naomi Cerre appears with NYS Assemblyman Sean Ryan at the school.
Credit WBFO News photo by Eileen Buckley

"Right now, State Ed only provides translated copies of the test in English and in Spanish," said Ryan. "So how is that helping us with our various Burmese dialects, how is that helping us with the kids who speak Swahili, how is that helping us with the kids that speak many different African dialects?"

Ryan says for a school like Lafayette, Common Core guarantees it will fail.  He said results don't reflect what's happening in the classroom.  The Assemblyman is calling on the state Senate to approve a bill that would delay Common Core for two years. 

The state Education Department require foreign students -- that have been in the US for more than a year -- to take the English Language Arts examine in English. At a Buffalo Common Core Forum held in December State Education Commissioner John King stated that it remains a "challenge" to assess English Language Learners.

"The Regents recently adopted a budget request to the Legislature that would allow us to, for the first time, offer native language arts exams so that a student who has recently arrived in the United States, for their first couple of years in the United States, would be able to take a literacy assessment in their native language, which will give us the opportunity to emphasize development of that native language and support eventually their English language acquisition support," said King.

"No Child Left Behind" requires on-grade level testing for the English Language Learners. Many of the state tests are translated into other language. 

"We can't possibly get translators for every single language that walks through our door," said Jessica Gilmartin, ELS Coordinator at Lafayette.

One of her goals is to make sure students don't fall behind.  

"We have a group of about eight to ten kids who come in before school to get tutoring. It was a contract that they signed with their parents and the school -- that they would come in every morning to get tutoring so that they can be in the 8th grade moving forward, so that they can come to high school next year," said Gilmartin.

Several students lined up to talk in our microphone about attending a school in America. WBFO News asked them about trying to take tests. One student noted "I just read the questions and try my best." Another student said she has difficulty understanding some of the English work. "I don't understand," she said.

13-year-old Aden, a 7th grader from Somalia, won an award for writing an essay he wrote about Mohammed Gandhi. Aden said he was inspired by Gandhi's work for peace.

Lafayette High School.
Credit WBFO News photo by Eileen Buckley

Assemblyman Ryan recently spoke with Board of Regents Chancellor Merrill Tish to explain the reality of what's happening inside Lafayette. Tish has agreed to visit the school this spring -- to see and hear directly from the students.