Lafayette High School Out of Time, Full of Hope

by / Aug. 6, 2015 9am EST

As Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes made her way to the podium in the auditorium of Lafayette High School a call and response chant filled the air of the cavernous space.

“Whose schools?” the crowd, holding placards and banners, called out. “Our schools.”

The state legislator stood flanked by students, educators, parents and alumni of Lafayette, one of four schools in the Buffalo Public Schools system being phased out, considered “out of time” by the state education department, as she called on the state and newly appointed education commissioner MaryEllen Elia to reconsider the designation of all four schools.

Peoples-Stokes said that she and Assemblyman Sean Ryan have sent a letter to Elia, suggesting that the schools be taken off the list so they might be eligible for a pot of $75 million in state money set aside for schools designated as “failing.”

“The dollars are there,” Peoples-Stokes said. “The effort needs to be to reach out and get it.”

Peoples-Stokes, who spent much of this past legislative session working on issues related to education, said she rejects the state’s designations of “failing” and “out of time,” arguing that state education department policy, insufficient resources and instability in state leadership are as much to blame for the poor achievement numbers on state tests as any of the educators, administrators or parents at the schools.

“They are not out of time,” Peoples-Stokes said. “They still have great students in them. They still have great parents in them. They have a lot of community support around them and they need to be given the time to do what’s proper for the students that are enrolled in them.”

Lafayette has had particular challenges in recent years. The high school has become a sort of de facto community school for newcomer students, the children of refugees and immigrants arriving in Buffalo.

The Queen City has become a hub for refugee resettlement over the last decade, with about 1,500 people resettling in Erie County each year, most of them in Buffalo, whether directly from refugee camps or from other U.S. cities.

This creates a disproportionate amount of English Language Learners, or ELLs as they are often called in the district, many who know little or no English when first enrolling in the school system.

These students are expected to take the same tests as every other public school student in New York state and those scores count in the performance evaluations for the individual schools.

Last year the schools graduation rate was just 16 percent, though educators at Lafayette say this year’s class jumped up to 32 percent, a sign that the school is headed in the right direction after learning how best to educate the newcomer students.

Buffalo Common Council Member David Rivera, whose Niagara District includes the school, said Lafayette parents are some of the most engaged in the district, but are put up against unrealistic obstacles in trying to adjust to their new surroundings while learning English and being held to the same standards as a student who has lived their entire life in the city.

“The problems we’re suffering are systemic,” Rivera said. “They’re sending students from all over the world to Lafayette High School with the expectation that they can achieve like any other high school. I would challenge any school district board member to go to Burma, to go to other countries and take exams in their languages and see how they fare.”

Henreh Too, a Junior at the school who came to Buffalo as a refugee from Burma, took rto the podium to explain why his parents sought refugee status, his voice breaking a few times as he searched for the English words that matched his meaning.

“In refugee camp some people cannot read and write,” Too said. “So they just come here to make a better life and make better education for our families.”