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Go Ahead, Close Lafayette High School - Why Should We Care?

he front-page story in the Buffalo News on Friday, October 28, 2011 regarding the problems at Lafayette High School was no surprise to anyone who pays any attention to annual reports of test scores and graduation rates. What is surprising and disappointing is to hear State Education Commissioner John King’s renewed threat to close the school at the end of this school year, seemingly without recognition of what has changed since the state designated Lafayette as “persistently lowest achieving” nearly two years ago.

Prior to 2008 most high school students designated as English language learners (ELLs) in Buffalo Public Schools were enrolled at Grover Cleveland High School. However, the decision to close Grover Cleveland over a four-year period coincided with a decision to move many of the ELLs to Lafayette. Over the past five years ELLs at Lafayette have increased from 9 percent to 60 percent of the total student population. This year nearly 40 percent of the high school ELLs in the entire district is at Lafayette. (This major shift in the makeup of the student body makes it extremely difficult to draw meaningful conclusions from data reported for Lafayette High School over this time period, e.g. graduation rates.)

Given its new role as the home for the largest concentration of grade 7-12 ELLs, the challenges at Lafayette High School are likely to grow. And this is just one piece of the puzzle as the district responds to new realities. Over the past five years approximately 30 percent of the refugees resettled in New York State have come to Buffalo—more than have been resettled in New York City. Many arrive here from refugee camps in Kenya or Chad or Tanzania or Thailand or Nepal where there have been limited opportunities for education. In the Buffalo Public Schools this fall, 638 students (225 at Lafayette High School) are classified as SIFE—Students with Interrupted Formal Education.

By definition, SIFE students in New York State are those ELLs who enter a school in the United States after grade 2, have had at least two years less schooling than their peers, function at least two years below expected grade level in reading and in mathematics, and may lack literacy skills in their native language (see Buffalo Public Schools website).

If you are wondering why we should care about ELLs and why closing Lafayette and disrupting the lives of 448 students and their families is a problem, consider the following: over the past decade the Buffalo Public School enrollment has declined by nearly 10,000 (42,941 in 2001-02 to approximately 33,000 in 2011-12), reflecting general population trends and growth of charter schools. There is only one segment of the school population that has shown dramatic growth—English language learners. Over the decade the number of ELLs has grown by 61 percent (2,320 in 2001-02 to 3,736 in 2011-12) and the ELL population has increased from 5.4 percent of the total district population in 2001-02 to over 11 percent this year.

Ten years ago the first language of the vast majority of ELLs was Spanish (78 percent in 2001-02); however, today Spanish is the first language of only 38 percent and two languages with roots in Burma (Karen and Burmese) account for 24.2 percent. The majority of the Karen and Burmese speakers have arrived as refugees over the past five years.

While Buffalo has been slow waking up to the great opportunity and major challenge we face in welcoming this latest wave of newcomers to our city and our schools; the district, working collaboratively with the community, has accomplished a great deal in a short period of time. A Multilingual Education Advisory Committee (MEAC) spent the entire 2010-2011 school year studying the Buffalo Public Schools ELL programs and the 85 recommendations included in the Council of Great City Schools report that was submitted in May 2010 and prepared recommendations to be submitted in a report to the Board of Education.

Unfortunately, the final MEAC Report, completed in June 2011, was pushed to the side along with many other important matters during the last months prior to the retirement of Superintendent James Williams. The newly appointed interim Superintendent Amber Dixon has shown a high level of responsiveness and met with the Multilingual Education Advisory Committee on October 4, 2011. The MEAC Report to the Board is now scheduled for November 2, 2011.

When Grover Cleveland High School closed and the decision was made to move ELLs in significant numbers to Lafayette High School, it was with the assumption that a comprehensive approach to meeting the needs of ELLs would be taken and central to this would be the creation of an International School Campus to encompass Lafayette (grades 7-12) and nearby International School #45 (grades PK-6). The MEAC Report encourages the creation and/or expansion of Newcomer programs at School #45 and Lafayette to help address the growing challenges presented by significant increases in the number of refugee students and the ever changing languages they speak.

Before rushing to close Lafayette, let’s take time to consider what it could become and who might be willing to step up to help bring about the desired change. Is it too much to think that Lafayette might become a vital part of a vibrant international campus where students and parents engage in rigorous educational initiatives designed to create involved and active citizens in our increasingly international city? We don’t think so and we are willing to engage the energy and resources of the BELL (Buffalo English Language Learners) Network in this effort.

The BELL Network is a coalition with representation from over 70 area agencies, organizations, colleges, universities and the Buffalo Public Schools that is leading efforts to create a seamless continuum of supports to promote educational and professional successes from cradle through college to career for English language learners (including refugees and immigrants) ages 0-25, primarily in the 14213 zip code (home to Lafayette High School and International School #45).

Despite the fact that the majority of the students at Lafayette High School today are English language learners and live in poverty, we believe Lafayette can become a part of that vibrant international campus of which we dream. Three things need to happen to give us a fighting chance: 1) the Buffalo Board of Education must empower and support its Multilingual Education Department and the Multilingual Education Advisory Committee, 2) broad community support must be captured through efforts of the BELL Network and others, and 3) the State Education Department must take a more collaborative and less punitive approach to improving schools serving ELLs (including Lafayette High School). For the sake of us all, let’s hope this happens.

> Charles E. Massey, Professor of Education and Coordinator of the Office for Urban Connections, Houghton College

> Gary Welborn, Chair and Associate Professor of Sociology, Buffalo State College

> Jill Koyama, Assistant Professor, Department of Educational Leadership and Policy, Graduate School of Education, University at Buffalo

> Dove Wilson Russo, Buffalo English Language Learners Support Coordinator, Volunteer and Service-Learning Center, Buffalo State College

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