Plucked From Africa, but Still Isolated in Their Classes

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Dec 29 14:16:50 UTC 2005

>>From the NYTimes, December 28, 2005
On Education

Plucked From Africa, but Still Isolated in Their Classes

IDIRIS MAOW, 14, an eighth grader at Forest Park Middle School, is a
refugee from Somalia who arrived here with his family in 2003. He is in
his second year in an English language immersion class, yet can barely
speak or understand English and cannot read it. Asked in English how long
he had been at Forest Park, he could not answer. His teacher, Andrew
Soucie, works hard with Idiris, but without a Somali translator to clarify
lessons, he said, there is little progress. "It's a disaster," Mr. Soucie
said. "Idiris should be getting clarification every day in his native
tongue. I try to help him, but we can't communicate, and I'm never sure
what he's thinking." Mr. Soucie said he asked his supervisors for
translation help but "can't get a straight answer."

"If Idiris were my child, I'd be furious," Mr. Soucie said. Somalian
refugee families were brought to Massachusetts in recent years sponsored
by local charities. There are 90 Somalian children in the public schools
here, but they are spread among 21 schools. Many, like Idiris, are the
only Somalis at their schools. While their mostly Hispanic classmates have
many teachers who are bilingual and can clarify lessons in Spanish, the
Somalis have received little or no classroom translation help during their
two years here.  Several interviewed at their homes one recent evening
through a translator hired by this writer appeared to be as lost as

Abdikadir Kabir, a fourth grader at Lincoln Elementary, could say the
English letters for the words "for" and "horse" but did not know how to
sound out the words. He said he was embarrassed, since he was the only one
in his class who could not read. Adey, his older sister, in the ninth
grade at the High School of Science and Technology, has a 1,066-page
global history book and cannot read a word of it. For a take-home quiz on
the Reformation, she guessed the answers. Her responses to the short essay
questions were a nonsensical mix of English, Spanish and gibberish.
Muslimo Sharif, the only Somali in an English immersion class full of
Hispanics at Duggan Middle School, said her teacher instructed in English
and clarified in Spanish. Muslimo said that she was the only one who could
not read and that when asked to do the first problem in the first lesson
in her math book, she could not.

Indeed, several Somalian parents worry that their children are learning
more Spanish than English. Ali Abdullahi, a third grader at Kensington,
had one school book at home - a math workbook in Spanish. Until a few
years ago, Springfield would have been required by the state to provide
transitional instruction in these students' native Somali language. But in
2002, Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley businessman, took his English-only
campaign to Massachusetts and got a referendum put on the ballot that
banned bilingual education. As a result, while current state education
rules "recommend" that schools have instructors to provide daily
clarification in a new student's native language, it is not required.

Springfield, which is near bankruptcy and is being run by a
state-appointed control board, was sharply criticized in a Massachusetts
Department of Education audit in February for "seriously deteriorated
levels of compliance" in English programs. The district has hired two
Somalian translators for 12 hours a week each to help the 90 children. But
because the 21 schools are so spread out and the two translators rely on
public buses that can take as long as two hours between schools, some
students are visited only once a month. One of the translators, Sudi Maow
(no relation to Idiris), said so much time was wasted traveling, "I'm only
spending an hour or two at the school, and half that time is the teachers
explaining the problems to me."

"I don't feel it's right," she said. "Because the kids don't understand,
they become discipline problems. They're lost, sitting in classes off to
the side, saying nothing." In an e-mail response, a spokeswoman for the
Springfield schools, Mary Beach, said that administrators had tried to
hire more translators but that they were hard to find. She said the two
translators worked only 12 hours because "one had a part-time job and the
other one is a full-time college student."

However, in interviews, both translators said they were eager to work more
hours. Siat Bulle, the second translator, said he was available 40 hours a
week. For two years, local advocates for the Somalis - including Dr. A. B.
Odutola, Doreen Fadus and Jean Caldwell - have repeatedly asked that the
children be clustered in a few schools to maximize translation support and
reduce travel time for translators.

Springfield officials have given a variety of reasons for not doing so.
Last spring, according to Mrs. Caldwell, school officials said that
clustering too many Somalis at one school would bring down its scores on
state tests and the school could be labeled failing under the federal No
Child Left Behind law. Mrs. Caldwell, a retiree who does volunteer work
for several Somalian families, has filed a complaint with the federal
Office of Civil Rights. Dr. Beach would not comment on questions about the
federal law. She said, however, that the 26,000 children in the district
were reassigned to their neighborhood schools in the fall to save money on
busing, and that since Somalis live throughout the city, their schools are

IF that is so, it is hard to explain what happened to the four Kabir
children. Hassan, a first grader, is assigned to Boland Elementary, while
Abdikadir, a fourth grader, is assigned to Lincoln Elementary. Adey, a
ninth grader, is assigned to the High School of Science, while her brother
Warsame, a junior, is assigned to Commerce High. Asked about this, Dr.
Beard said she could not discuss specific cases.

Sylvia Smith, a state Education Department spokeswoman, said auditors
would return next month to review the city's English language program,
including the treatment of Somalis. "We're aware of these issues," she
said. "We'll be looking at these things." Mary Janeczek, the cochairwoman
of the education department at nearby Elms College, has trained many of
the city's English language teachers and is a former Education Department
administrator. She believes Springfield is violating the law. "If they're
giving clarification in Spanish, they should be giving clarification in
Somali, too; it's a question of fairness," she said.

Since coming here two years ago thanks to the sponsorship of Jewish Family
Services of Western Massachusetts, the Somalis have struggled. Mr. Soucie,
the teacher, said, "We're blatantly out of compliance, the way we're
treating these children." "We need translation help," he said. "I need to
know what Idiris is thinking." Through a translator, Idiris said he was
thinking how lucky he is to be in America after 10 years in refugee camps.
But he said he was also thinking that he expected the schools to be better
in America and he is thinking how hard it will be in America without

E-mail: edmike at

Copyright 2005The New York Times Company

Harold F. Schiffman

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