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At an Erie 1 BOCES open house Thursday evening in Cheektowaga, parents and students from two of Buffalo’s worst-performing high schools got a firsthand look at the array of vocational programs they stand to benefit from this school year, thanks to a state-mandated partnership between the regional education service provider and Buffalo Public Schools.

The tour of the Harkness Career and Technical Center on Aero Drive, one of BOCES’ three area facilities, also gave faculty and staff a chance to meet some of the first Buffalo Schools students ever to enroll in their programs, many of whom will bring unique language-related challenges into the classroom when classes begin next month.

“You are making history,” BOCES Superintendent Donald A. Ogilvie told the group of about 60 students from Lafayette and East high schools in attendance, calling the students “pioneers” and “heroes” for being among the first city students to consider enrolling in BOCES programs.

Low graduation rates and poor attendance have plagued Lafayette and East for years. Fewer than a quarter of students graduated from both schools last year, the worst such rates in the city.

In July, State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. required the Buffalo School District to fund supplemental vocational coursework through BOCES for any interested student from the two failing schools. The unprecedented move drew fire from some school administrators, who argued that the schools face unique challenges and are being held to impossible standards. Lafayette in particular is working to accommodate a huge number of refugee students with limited English.

For their part, the parents and students in attendance Thursday evening seemed eager to seize on the opportunities presented to them by the partnership. Students toured the Cheektowaga facilities in small groups, moving from classroom to classroom as instructors offered overviews of BOCES programs ranging from auto collision repair to Web technologies.

Many students required the help of translators to understand everything that was being said. BOCES partnered with several local groups to provide translation in seven languages – from Spanish to Somali. When Ogilvie addressed the entire group to kick off the tour, he spoke slowly and punctuated his remarks with frequent pauses, when the language interpreters could be heard.

School buses brought students from both high schools to the event, although event organizers estimated that the majority of students came from Lafayette.

BOCES instructors noted that, while the influx of bilingual students representing an array of ethnicities would present unique challenges, BOCES’ hands-on approach to vocational training would help students get past the language barrier.

“Food is pretty universal,” said Tina Fago, an instructor in baking and pastry arts, as a group of students – mostly from Burma – toured the Harkness Center’s expansive industrial kitchen. Here, Fago said, students acquire skills that help them land culinary jobs upon graduation.

“There will be some barriers once we start talking about vocabulary and things like that,” Fago acknowledged. Ultimately, though, she and her fellow culinary instructors were confident that those barriers could be overcome through demonstration and visual teaching.

Students enrolled in BOCES programs will start the school day earlier and take all of their usually required courses before lunch, before being bused to BOCES’ suburban facilities for their vocational training.

One Lafayette mother spoke highly of the opportunity for her son to enroll in a BOCES program.

“I’m thrilled,” said Naomie Lasco, whose 15-year-old son, Ricky, was on hand to check out the auto collision program.

Lasco called the opportunity “long overdue” for Lafayette students, who she said were generally hardworking but had not been given the resources to overcome the language barriers many of them faced. “A lot of these kids can barely speak English, let alone graduate in four years,” Lasco said.

The new opportunities BOCES presented are much needed and well deserved, she added.

email: hglick@buffnews.com