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By Lenore Tetkowski

The League of Women Voters believes that a quality public education is essential for a strong, viable and sustainable democratic society, and it is a civil right.

Visits to two schools designated “in need of improvement” – the International School and Lafayette High School, both of which are filled with immigrant and refugee youngsters – inspired members of the league to advocate for support of specialized staff, additional materials and increased attention to their specific needs.

Most of the 900 students at the International School are refugees, and speak 30 to 40 different languages. Many of these children suffer from trauma from their experiences in refugee camps.

Mastery on New York State exams is expected, although fluency in the English language takes years to develop, and living in an entirely different culture is a daunting challenge. To help close the language gap, this special school invites families to parent events with translators, and provides a newsletter. Special resource teachers work with the children alongside teachers. SUNY Buffalo State partners with them in a College Bound program. Children in pre-K classes are starting to learn the English language. Additional teachers would build teacher capacity.

As a group, ESL (English as a second language) students have persistently low achievement because students are moved out of the group when they improve, and new refugees move in. Volunteers are needed.

Lafayette High School has 854 students speaking 42 languages. These teenage students have survived many tragedies and traumas, but they work hard in school, and are expected to pass regents exams. In 2006, this school had 29 percent ESL; now it has 70 percent. Linking social services to the families is critical.

The principal, Naomi Cerre, looks forward to having Johns Hopkins as an education partner. We observed enthusiasm, optimism and serious concentration. When it was discovered that Latino girls were not attending college, they and their mothers were invited to hear a speaker from Say Yes to Education with a translator. When they understood the offer, they responded enthusiastically.

Last year 220 seventh- and eighth-graders were added to Lafayette. As many as 98 percent of the students in Lafayette High are on free or reduced-price lunch programs. Bilingual teachers, counselors and social workers are needed to adapt students to their community.

Meanwhile, educators are putting the new Common Core state standards into classroom practice. The International School and Lafayette High need the support of the community and the school system to bridge the language and cultural gaps.

Lenore Tetkowski is chairwoman of the education committee of the League of Women Voters Buffalo/Niagara.