Buffalo NY: 'School District suffers bilingual breakdown'

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Mon Oct 20 00:24:04 UTC 2008

No language, no learning
Girl's plight calls into question the way Buffalo serves its
Spanish-speaking students

Updated: 10/19/08 8:04 AM

Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News
'Buffalo School District suffers bilingual breakdown'

Nicole Marrero has attended Buffalo's alternative school for more than
two years but says she can't understand her teachers, her classmates
or her assignments. Nicole, who moved to Buffalo with her family from
Puerto Rico six years ago, speaks fluent Spanish but very little
And none of her teachers, including her English as a Second Language
instructor, speak Spanish. So Nicole, 15, sits in class, unable to
understand what is being said. She has been doing this for two years.
"I'm lost," Nicole said, speaking through an interpreter. "I don't
know what to do. I don't feel good because I don't learn anything."

Nicole is not alone. At least three other Spanish-speaking students at
Academy School @ 44 on Broadway face the same problem, according to
Ralph Hernandez, the West District member of the Buffalo Board of
Education. Hispanic community leaders say Nicole's situation
highlights longtime deficiencies in the teaching of Spanish-speaking
students in Buffalo. "This is not an isolated case," said Lourdes
Iglesias, executive director of Hispanics United of Buffalo. "We see
things like this all the time. What they are doing to this child is
educational neglect at its worst. We hold parents accountable every
day. Who holds the superintendent and the school district

Buffalo school officials denied Nicole's claims that she doesn't speak
English, but refused to answer questions about whether she has the
language skills to function appropriately in a classroom in which
English is the only language spoken. "I've had conversations with
Nicole in English," said Gregory Mott, principal of Academy School.
Nicole is "average to above average in English, at best," Mott said,
adding that he feels her English skills are appropriate for her age.

But in a conference call with a reporter, Mott and three other Buffalo
school officials would not answer questions about whether Nicole can
function adequately in an Englishlanguage classroom or school
environment. The officials said they could not answer that question
because "we have some very strict [legal] limitations" involving
student privacy, said Michael Looby, the district's general counsel.
Nicole has been identified as a student eligible for bilingual
services, Hernandez said. He learned that she had been given this
designation during a visit to the school last week.

"It's right here," Hernandez said. "It's on the list I got from Greg
Mott himself." Mott confirmed her eligibility in a conversation with
him, Hernandez said.
The district spends millions of dollars a year educating students
whose first languages are not English, Hernandez said, but the
situation at the alternative school is intolerable. "It's a total
failure on the part of the district," Hernandez said. "We have,
without a doubt, violated these kids' civil rights."

A school district official criticized Hernandez for his role in
bringing Nicole's situation to light. "This practice of individual
board members governing through the press instead of at the board
table has reached an unacceptable level," said Associate
Superintendent Will Keresztes. "It's exploitive of families and
insulting to principals and teachers who are tireless in their efforts
to bring intervention to students. "It's also unfair to other board
members who exercise their authority professionally in convened board
meetings," Keresztes continued. "When the school district has not met
a parent's expectations, we will remedy their concerns. We will
restore their confidence. But not this way, not through conflict in
the press."

In an interview conducted last week through an interpreter, Nicole and
her mother, Elizabeth Fernandez, said they are angry, saddened and
Nicole said she doesn't take exams and doesn't get report cards. When
she quit going to school for two months last year, her mother was
cited for educational neglect. According to a legal guide published by
the New York State Bar Association and the New York State Association
of School Boards, school districts are not legally required to provide
bilingual education or ESL programs. However, districts must have
policies detailing how students with limited English proficiency will
be educated, and those policies must include "assurances that such
students will have access to appropriate services," the guide says.

The problems at Academy School run deeper than the situation Nicole
faces. A state Education Department report last July said the school
fails to meet standards on instructional time, lacks supplies and
equipment, does not offer challenging work for many students, assigns
teachers to subjects they are not certified to teach and has a serious
attendance problem. The school, for students in grades seven through
12, opened in 2006 to assist at-risk youngsters and reduce violence in
other city schools. Last year, just 9 percent of the school's
seventh-graders were proficient in English and 6 percent were
proficient in math.

When the report was released, state Board of Regents Chancellor Robert
M. Bennett said that the school should be closed if it doesn't improve
dramatically. School district officials said they are implementing a
broad series of recommendations made by the state review team. Buffalo
has extensive programs for Spanish-speaking students, and Nicole did
receive bilingual assistance after moving here in 2002. At two
elementary schools, she was taught English in one class and received
Spanish-language instruction in her academic subjects. But after she
was assigned to the alternative school in September 2006, Nicole was
without the assistance of Spanishlanguage teachers, and still did not
speak enough English to understand written material or verbal
instruction, she and her mother said.

They said the assignment to the alternative school was made after
Nicole missed about 50 days of school the previous year. Fernandez, a
single mother, said she suffered from depression and physical
problems, and that those difficulties affected Nicole and her five
other children. Things for Nicole only got worse at the alternative
school. For much of her time there, Nicole said, she has been given
computerized, English-language reading assignments that she doesn't
understand. When she finds words in the readings that matched those in
the related questions, she copies those portions of the readings as
her answers, even though she doesn't know what they mean.

This year, Nicole said, she spends an hour each day with a
well-intentioned ESL teacher, but the teacher does not speak Spanish
and they make little progress. The rest of Nicole's day is spent in
classes where only English is spoken and she says she doesn't
understand anything. Fernandez said she asked school officials last
year about final exams, and was told her daughter wouldn't be taking
any. "I feel horrible," she said. "I'm very angry. All she's doing is
failing. She's been in seventh grade the last three years." Fernandez
said she was assigned a social worker after being charged with
educational neglect because her daughter was missing school. The
social worker contacted Hernandez, an advocate of programs for
students with limited English proficiency.

Hernandez said that he and Fernandez met with School Superintendent
James A. Williams on Oct. 8, and that the superintendent said he would
transfer Nicole to another school. School officials said they have
been unable to reach Fernandez to make those arrangements. Hernandez
said Nicole's situation underlines the "highly fragmented,
inadequately defined and poorly monitored" bilingual and ESL efforts
in Buffalo. He said the four-year graduation rate for students with
limited English skills is just 38 percent. "Over 90 percent of these
students never go to college," Hernandez said. "Instead, many work in
fast-food restaurants, dead-end jobs or turn to crime because they
can't read, write or speak English. This is a disgrace, and we must
not permit it to continue."

Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore has been a
frequent critic of Academy School @ 44, charging that it has been
warehousing at-risk students and that millions of dollars have been
wasted there on contracts for services from ResulTech, a private
Maryland firm. Nicole's difficulties should have been identified and
dealt with long ago, Rumore said. "This is another form of child
abuse," he said. "Whoever is responsible should be fired — I think
they should be sent to jail. How are we ever going to replace those
two years of the child's life?"


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