City Fails on Dual Language in Schools

Mary B. Pasciak, Buffalo News, May 17, 2010

Buffalo public schools provide inconsistent, inadequate and inequitable services to students who speak English as their second language, according to a scathing report recently released to the administration and Board of Education.

The city’s rapidly growing student population of recent immigrants and refugees–now numbering more than 3,000–has historically been “largely invisible” in Buffalo schools, the report contends.

“The school system didn’t seem to notice they were here, didn’t think to modify an otherwise successful program to ensure that these newcomers could succeed, and didn’t create an effective system to reach out to those communities,” states the Council of Great City Schools report, which was commissioned by the board.

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The 158-page report praises the school system’s multilingual education department and its director, Tamara O. Alsace, but harshly criticizes the vast majority of principals and teachers who work most directly with students.

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Students who speak English as a second language represent 9 percent of enrollment, and for nearly half of them, Spanish is the native language.

Hundreds of other immigrant and refugee students speak Somali, Arabic, Burmese and Karen, a language spoken in Thailand, Tibet and Myanmar, which had been known as Burma. More than 60 other languages are each spoken by a handful of other students.

While the school system as a whole has made significant strides in academic achievement in the last few years, progress has been slower for students whose native language is not English, the report says.

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The report also found that:

o Students and their families have difficulty getting basic information about schools in the system and services available to them because the system’s Web site and most of its written material is in English only.

o A disproportionate number of non-native English-speaking students are placed in special education, compared with national rates. Among those who are placed in special ed, an unusually high percentage are classified as learning-disabled or speech-impaired, “raising questions about the diagnostic and identification process.”

o Admission to the city’s magnet programs and top high schools is out of reach for most, in part because entrance exams are given only in English.

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Oladele [Folasade Oladele, deputy superintendent] and Alsace noted that it has been a year since the Council of Great City Schools visited Buffalo. The city’s schools have made strides in a number of areas during that time, they said.

For instance, the school system now contracts with a national company that provides translation services for more than 100 languages to help parents with phone calls to their children’s schools, Alsace said. Frequently used documents such as field trip permission forms are being translated into the five most common languages. The system has hired more aides who speak students’ native languages.

And more is in the works. Principals will be educated about the particular needs of these students, Oladele said. The system’s entire Web site soon will be revamped and will become more accessible.

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The focus of the study is dear to Hernandez [Ralph R. Hernandez, the School Board president,], who was born in Puerto Rico and raised in New York City. There, his family spoke only Spanish at home, but the children learned English at school. He believes that the school system is ready to address its problems, using the report as a blueprint.

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