Henreh Too sits in his bedroom in his West Side home in Buffalo, looking over course materials that will likely be on the history test he’ll take next summer.
Too, who arrived in the city on June 2, 2009, from the Burmese refugee camp in Thailand where he was born, is entering his senior year at Lafayette High School.
He wanted to take summer classes, but his teachers encouraged him to take the summer off to pursue one of his other passions: working in his community as an ambassador for other Burmese refugees.
Still, the 17-year-old’s focus has remained relatively singular. He spends many hours of the humid Buffalo summer in his top-floor bedroom, a finished attic. Stacks of books and papers rest on the floor near the head of his bed.
“For me, I just want to go back to school,” Too says. “Because when I stay home I’m not learning, I’m not doing anything, so I like to go back to learn different stuff.”
Too is on track to graduate on time, and that makes him an anomaly among his peers. The on-time graduation rate at Lafayette was 16 percent in 2014, the most recent year for which verified data is available.
Students categorized as “limited English proficient,” a federal classification that the state calls English language learners, had a graduation rate of 14 percent at Lafayette that year, slightly less than the 17 percent for students in the same group districtwide. The rate for refugee children, which is not tracked separately in the official state education numbers, is likely lower.
Too’s English is good enough for him to hold a conversation, but he still stutters as he searches for words at times. When he takes his history exam next June, a translator will help him with any words he can’t make out.
But even then he won’t be helped in his home language. Too’s family speaks Karenni, one of about 100 commonly used languages in Myanmar. Instead, his translator will speak to him in Burmese, the official language of the government that prompted his family to flee, carrying out atrocities on many minority groups. Spoken by about two-thirds of Burmese people, the language operates as a lingua franca in the ethnically complex culture.
“Testing here is kind of difficult for refugee kids because we are second language and coming to learn and have education,” Too said.
While the refugees most commonly found in Buffalo are Burmese, children from a wide range of countries arrive each year, speaking dozens of different languages – more than 45 at Lafayette. In addition, Spanish-speaking children, many from Puerto Rico, have also come to call Buffalo home.
And all those students must take the state’s English language arts and math tests one year after they arrive if they are in grades three through eight, and must take Regents exams the same year they arrive if they come into the country at a high school age.
Too says that is unreasonable and he has watched fellow refugee students struggle, sometimes dropping out, as they try to work their way through a brand new language and education system.
“We have to have more time to understand and to be able to pass Regents exams,” Too said. “Not for me, but for all the students.”
While the situation at Lafayette is a particularly dire case, English language learner students are struggling to keep up with their native English speaking counterparts across the state.
Other upstate districts with high numbers of limited English proficient students also have abysmal graduation rates for that population. Head east on Interstate 90 to Rochester, the rate was 13 percent in 2014. Next stop, Syracuse, and it’s a little higher at 25 percent. Albany saw a significant bump recently, registering a 23 percent graduation rate in 2014 after posting just 12 percent for that population in 2013.
Even Utica and New York City, considered districts that drive best practices and serve as models for other educators, saw just 27 percent and 33 percent of students with limited English graduate in 2014. (Utica had a 38 percent rate in 2013.)
Many schools with high populations of students learning English have found themselves on the state’s list of struggling schools. Under a law passed in 2014, they could be handed over to a third-party receiver or, like Lafayette and Syracuse’s Fowler High School, could be phased out and closed permanently.
Over the years so much change has happened at Lafayette it’s difficult to keep track of. The school took students from two closed schools, a move that some believe led to a culture of violence that had Lafayette in the news for out-of-control fights during the mid-2000s. More recently, the district worked with Johns Hopkins University on a turnaround plan, but it was abruptly terminated last year.
Meanwhile, the school has seen its English language learner population rise from 10 percent in 2007 to almost 70 percent this school year.
As of now, there are two schools operating out of the building with their own administrative staff and a third that is expected to begin preparations to move in. Lafayette, the one with the 16 percent graduation rate in 2014, has stopped accepting new students and will no longer exist after the last of its current students have graduated. The Newcomer/STAR Academy program, which works with newly arrived refugee and immigrant children, as well as students who have fallen behind on the path to graduation, will continue to operate out of the building, with no plans for closure. Meanwhile, a plan for a phase-in of a new Lafayette High School (it’s unclear if the name will remain) is in the works, but has yet to be finalized. The district is courting a highly respected administrator from New York City’s international schools, and word around the building is that he will have an office in the school this year.
All the change has made for a great deal of turbulence for the school. Naomi Cerre, Lafayette’s principal since 2011, was moved to another school despite glowing feedback from academics, teachers, students and community members on the work she did to garner more resources and attention for the struggling school. Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, educators and community members decried her removal at an early August rally calling on the state to allow a turnaround plan to be implemented.
As a result of the phase-out, 35 teachers have been transferred to other schools this year.
Patrick Foster was one of the teachers who spoke at the rally in support of keeping the school open. As a history teacher at the school since 2001, he has witnessed the immense changes firsthand. He says that with the constant shuffling of people, resources and requirements, it’s tough for the school to maintain progress.
He points to a double-digit jump in the graduation rate last year, noting that Cerre was removed from her post just as things were starting to look better. Indeed, preliminary numbers show that the 2015 graduation rate was nearly 32 percent, twice the 2014 mark.
“Even the gains we were able to make, we’re not going to be able to sustain them because we’re going to be dealing with an all-new faculty,” Foster said.
Every time the school seems like it’s beginning to get things straightened out, he said, something new is thrust upon teachers and administrators, bringing a whole new set of challenges. He pointed out that just as the school was getting its violence issues under control Lafayette became the welcoming center for newcomer students, taking that role over from the Grover Cleveland High School after it was phased out.
“Now we’re not in trouble for discipline,” Foster said. “The climate is pretty wonderful here. It’s really for test scores and graduation rates. Now we’re getting hit for a totally different kind of thing.”
Foster admitted he’s worried about the future. He doesn’t want to move on to a new school. But the prospect of the phase-in plan, and the highly touted administrator rumored to be tapped to run it, gives him some hope.
“Despite all that, I am optimistic,” he said.
CHANGES ON THE WAY
Angelica Infante, the state’s commissioner of bilingual education, said the amount of attention paid to the issue of educating refugee children has increased dramatically over the course of the last few years.
Multilingual education has always been important in a state that has long been home to so many newcomers, but over the last 18 months it has been on the agenda of nearly every meeting of the state’s Board of Regents.
“It’s an important population and it’s a population that we are focused on as a state and we are looking at how they develop very seriously, how teachers work with them,” Infante said.
The state is in the process of implementing the Blueprint for English Language Learners Success, a plan that sets updated guidelines on goals every district will work toward in an effort to get all English language learners on track.
In addition, the commissioner has amended requirements for districts teaching English language learners to be more clearly defined and to address some of the challenges that have arisen. Those changes are also set to be implemented this school year.
“We’ve put a lot of focus on this,” Infante said. “We spent all of last year, a lot of time talking about this issue. We also changed the regulation that had not been changed in 30 years.”
One area the new Blueprint plan focuses on is the idea of training students in English while they are learning other subject matter. Many districts are already doing this in some form, but before the change to the regulation, they were not required to provide anything more than stand-alone English classes. Under the new rules, districts across the state will be required to provide stand-alone instruction in English as a new language while also weaving English lessons into other subjects in classes either taught by a dually certified teacher or co-taught by a language instructor and another teacher.
The idea is that a kid whose home language is Nepali will be learning English terminology with a language teacher by their side during their lesson on the Pythagorean theorem.
“It’s built into the instruction,” Infante said. “Not as an outside piece or something they do after school, but part of their instructional practice.”
Also part of the policy shift is a heavy focus on teacher training for all teachers who will have English language learners. Whereas previously teachers in schools with high numbers of English language learners were only required to get professional development specifically dealing with that population if they were language teachers, all teachers will now need to dedicate 15 percent of their professional development training to the education of newcomers, with a focus on co-teaching strategies and integrating English as a new language into their lesson plans.
“I think there needs to be a focus, a very strategic focus, on this population to try to support the teachers and work with them,” Infante said. “We’re very conscious that the teachers need professional development to move forward.”
Infante said that part of the difficulty comes in that there are regulations tied to federal funding and programs, like President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top and President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind before that.
The state has asked the federal government to relax some of the requirements, but has not had much luck in getting the U.S. Department of Education to agree. The state requested that the federal government waive English language arts tests for newcomer children beyond one year, but was denied, Infante said.
Still, the state will continue to ask for relief.
“We’re pursuing it,” Infante said. “We feel that a year is not enough time.”
The state Education Department was also unsuccessful in its push to get an additional $85 million in funding during the budget process last year, some of which would have gone toward the implementation of these changes.
Infante said that with proper scheduling, training and planning, districts should be able to implement the changes without additional resources, as the amount of total time spent on English lessons will actually decrease with the integrated model.
“When we start talking about cost and maybe new teachers, it’s all relative,” Infante said. “It depends on how you look at it.”
“Refugee” is a specific legal status granted by the U.S. Department of State. Upstate city schools may have a higher percentage of children classified as refugees than downstate, but there are still many in New York City classified by the state as “students with inconsistent/interrupted formal education,” or SIFE. Many English language learner students in New York City have come as asylum seekers of a different status. People fleeing Central American countries like El Salvador to escape drug violence, for example, are not recognized as refugees by the U.S. government and so are labeled migrants. Some families may have fled violence on their own and made it to the U.S. without the help of the federal government through traditional means and are classified as immigrants. Others may have been granted refugee status and resettled in another city, but then moved as their parents chased an economic opportunity.
And while the state Education Department website does not break English language learners into subgroups, the breadth of academic experience and ability within that group is expansive.
Some kids have gone years without going to school and are barely literate, even in their home language, while others have had regular schooling in a refugee camp, but with a curriculum that would not meet New York state’s standards. Still others have had a comparable or better education in their home country than in the U.S.
Moving forward, however, the districts will be required to break English language learners into subgroups, as spelled out in the Blueprint plan and policy changes. This, Infante says, will allow educators to better tailor learning plans to specific student needs and abilities instead of using a similar rubric to educate all English language learner students.
“What we’re trying to do as a state and working with all the districts is differentiate each type of (English language learner),” Infante said.
It’s unclear exactly what percentage of each district’s English language learner population is refugee, but Infante argues that all districts with large newcomer populations have their fair share of SIFE students, and so educating those students in New York City or Buffalo or Utica is not all that different.
“The major difference is how they got here and where they end up,” Infante said. “But, in terms of the education system, it’s more or less the same education and the same scaffold of support.”
Buffalo has continuously welcomed more refugees to the city every year over the last decade. In 2014 the city saw about 1,500 people resettled here, with the state taking in more than 4,000 – behind only California and Texas.
Like other upstate cities, Buffalo is attractive for resettlement agencies, since affordable housing makes the $900 stipend given by the U.S. State Department and other social service supports stretch a little further. The counties that constitute New York City and Long Island took in just 5 percent of the refugees that entered the state in 2014, while Erie and Onondaga counties became home to more than 2,500 of the newcomers, according to data from the state Bureau of Refugee and Immigrant Assistance.
Buffalo Assemblyman Sean Ryan sees that as a good thing. The first positive population growth in Erie County in decades, meager as it may be, is largely attributed to the influx of refugees. And the diversity of cultures brought by the refugee community makes the city a more vibrant place, he added.
However, children coming from refugee camps, often fleeing violence and persecution, bring a particular set of challenges, and Ryan argues that the state Education Department has yet to create an effective system to meet those challenges.
“We have to make it so that the upstate cities don’t suffer at the hand of rigid state ed policies for being welcoming and accepting to international refugees,” Ryan said.
As he sees it, making kids take Regents exams months after they set foot in the U.S. is setting them and their schools up for failure in a way that creates a cycle of shuffling students around and closing schools.
Gathering children with similar challenges in a single school makes sense, he said, but only if there is a reasonable method for assessing their learning.
“We won’t be able to maintain that system if we keep having a system that penalizes districts for doing that,” Ryan said.
In addition, districts with a large number of refugees are often dealing with many other issues – high rates of poverty, low attendance – and have the least means to address the challenges that accompany such a population.
With low tax bases caused by depressed property values – the very thing that makes the cities attractive for resettlement – the schools are taking on more high-needs students without the resources to help get those children caught up, Ryan said.
“It’s almost exclusively a situation that places with low housing values are facing,” Ryan said. Refugees are settling in “areas that generate the least amount of property tax and have the least ability to implement their own programs.”
As the chairman of the Assembly’s Committee on State-Local Relations, Ryan intends to travel this fall to upstate school districts facing issues similar to Buffalo’s. He plans to ask what they feel can be done to create an effective system for facing those challenges in order to develop a set of recommendations to hand off to the state.
He will also explore what can be done through legislation, he said.
“The municipalities that are accepting refugees are all facing this common problem, but they’re being made to develop solutions independent from one another,” he said.
Ryan is aware of the state’s plans to change its regulations and implement the Blueprint plan, but he is less than optimistic. Despite assurances that the new plan will not require an increase in teaching staff or other resources, he wonders how all the changes can happen without additional funding.
The phase-in of a new school at Lafayette, something he described as “shuffling the chairs on the deck of the Titanic,” is emblematic of the larger shifts going on at the state level. Without significant policy changes to account for students who arrive late in their high school years, or delays in counting their test results toward teacher evaluations, Ryan sees Lafayette as being set up to fail again under a new name.
“Lafayette is a clearing house right now,” Ryan said. “If a kid comes in mid-year, that’s where they go.”
Donna Pepero is the education director at Journey’s End, one of the nonprofits largely funded by the U.S. State Department that act as the federal government’s boots on the ground in Buffalo, finding housing for newly arrived refugees, helping them sign up for social services and getting their children enrolled in school.
Pepero, a former educator herself, called teachers who work in schools with high English language learner populations the “best of the best.” She, like Ryan, says the main hurdles at those schools are top-down policies driven by the state and federal governments.
“The people at the ground level know what we need to help these refugees and these students to succeed,” Pepero said. “But it’s selling that to state ed, who has their own set of ideas, which aren’t working.”
She, too, is skeptical about the new rule changes and whether they will do enough to create a stable system of education for refugee children.
“If New York is committed to bringing refugees to the state, we need to be committed to providing the right services so that they can be successful, and our education system is not doing that,” Pepero said.
LOST IN TRANSLATION
Tamara Alsace spent nine years as the director of multilingual education for Buffalo Public Schools before retiring at the end of last school year.
Alsace, who continues to volunteer as a multilingual expert with the district, said that one of the biggest challenges for districts like Buffalo, Utica and Syracuse is keeping up with the changing populations.
While the languages in New York City tend to stay relatively stable, those spoken in cities with large refugee populations are constantly shifting as new waves of groups arrive based on need. When there is a conflict or human rights violations in one part of the world, upstate cities will eventually see more people from that region seeking refugee status.
Somalis were some of the first refugees to arrive in large numbers to Buffalo. Since then, there have been Burmese, Bhutanese-Nepali, Sudanese, Iraqi and others. Soon, with the civil war and parts of their country controlled by the Islamic State, Syrian refugees will likely be coming to New York in large numbers.
Over a five-year period, a district’s top languages may turn over completely, Alsace said.
In addition, the top five languages in the Buffalo school district have little overlap with the top five languages spoken statewide, a trend driven largely by the massive amount of English language learners in New York City and Long Island, where 83 percent of those students go to school.
As a result, testing and other materials are often not available in the languages spoken by refugee students, Alsace said.
“Keeping up with the types of supports we know are important, like home language support, communication with family, materials in the home language, some of those are more difficult to come by with these low-incidence languages,” Alsace said. “The state provides more materials and supports in those top languages.”
Alsace, who has worked with the state Education Department throughout her time in the multilingual department, said that if the right system and supports are put in place, any child can succeed.
The key, she said, is making sure that, even at the first stages of learning English, other subject matter does not fall by the wayside. And she emphasized that evaluations of English language learners have to be tailored to take into account the varied ways learning can be measured.
“Because the student doesn’t speak English doesn’t mean that they’re not expected to learn from the time that they come into the school to the time that a test can happen,” Alsace said.
“But we have to look at the type of assessments we’re providing. We can’t compare students who are newly arrived to students who were born here or who have been here for a given length of time, especially on tests that are designed for English speakers.”
She reiterated that many refugee students have had educational experiences that can’t fairly be compared to the highly structured American education system. In light of this, she said, the state should reconsider how it counts graduation rates – one of the main factors in the criteria for failing schools – for SIFE students.
“If the student arrived two years ago not speaking any English and has interrupted, informal education, that student is not going to graduate on time,” Alsace said. “It’s very unlikely.”
Other ways the state might consider improving graduation rates for refugee students would be counting course work completed in previous schooling toward the student’s diploma and offering credits for classes taken in the student’s home language.
The state needs to create a clear pathway to graduation to get more students engaged and invested, Alsace said. Beyond policy, getting on the right track will take resources, something that is not always easy to come by in districts like Buffalo. And all teachers need to be trained to teach SIFE children, she added.
“We need more counselors who are aware of the needs of this population and can help to guide the students … and their parents to help them understand the process for what’s required in American schooling to get kids to graduate,” Alsace said.
From what she’s seen of the Education Department’s Blueprint and other planned changes, Alsace thinks the state is taking its work seriously.
“They’re going in the right direction, and districts are following suit,” she said.
While a great deal of work remains, Alsace sees a bright future in the education of refugee children in Buffalo and across the state.
“I know that we can do it,” she said. “I think that we have made progress and I think that we can continue to make progress. While this population poses challenges, they pose a lot of wonderful qualities and opportunities and we need do more to tap into what these students bring and view them as an asset rather than a liability. That’s being recognized more and more in the state, but we have to keep working towards it.”
ON THE WAY OUT
In the past year alone, significant progress can be seen at Lafayette. The state Education Department sent out press materials honoring Lafayette’s three highest-achieving students in the 2015 school year – all refugees – and the graduation rate has doubled. But the school is still on the path to closure.
For many at the school, these achievements are bittersweet. Under the phase-out plan, the last cohort of students at the 112-year-old school will finish in 2020. Scores of educators are adjusting to new schools around the district after being transferred from Lafayette.
Still, Henreh Too is feeling excited about his senior year. He gathered with a group of students, some wearing hijabs and head scarves of black, teal and magenta, others in dark skinny jeans, high tops and T-shirts, talking in the morning chill of September as they prepared to enter the school.
“It’s going good,” he said.
Too said his goal is to finish the year, and pass his final two Regents exams, English and U.S. history, before deciding what to do next. He’s not sure if he will go to college. He likes music, but isn’t convinced that will set him on a path toward a good career.
At a recent college fair, he spoke with representatives from Erie Community College, Buffalo State and Canisius. Perhaps the best plan is to start at community college and transfer to a four-year school, he said.
In the end, he will defer to his parents.
His mother, who cleans the offices of an insurance company, and his father, a dishwasher at a restaurant, went to immense lengths to make sure that he and his four younger siblings – ages five to 14 – would have a chance at an American education, he said.
“I try to make my parents happy, because they always tell me, ‘Get your high school diploma. We come here for you to have a good education and to help us,’” Too said. “They worry about us.”
Too spends his evenings in his attic bedroom taking practice Regents exams online and scanning textbooks. Some afternoons he runs cross-country or volunteers at his Catholic church.
He often gets calls from members of the Burmese community asking him to come help them fill a prescription or complete social services documents. Sometimes has to say no – too much homework – but he tries to help whenever he can.
He trusts that those favors will come back to him someday.
“I’m thinking about the future,” Too said. “When I have a family, they will help me.”
Too is well aware of the phase-out plan at Lafayette. He was one of the speakers at the rally in support of keeping the school open. He stands by that sentiment. His teachers at the school have been great to him, and he wants to make sure that his brothers and sisters, as well as other children working toward a high school diploma while learning English, have the same opportunity to learn from such supportive people.
“I just want to fight for all the people, my siblings, my brother and sister too,” he said. “I want to fight for them to have a good education, because we’ve got wonderful teachers there.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that International Preparatory School at Grover Cleveland was phased out.
Justin Sondel is a staff reporter for City & State, a statewide politics and policy journal in partnership with The Public. Photos by Nancy J. Parisi.