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Merryl Tisch, the state’s top education official, sat politely in the grand, oak-paneled auditorium of Buffalo’s Lafayette High School two months ago, but her face told the tale. Her lips were pursed and her brow was furrowed in a slight frown.

The Board of Regents chancellor interrupted the staff’s 10-slide PowerPoint presentation and asked pointed questions about graduation rates and placements. When Assemblyman Sean Ryan tried to argue that Lafayette’s abysmal outcomes were the result of a stacked deck, she cut him off.

“Come with me to Brooklyn,” she said. “I know what success looks like. I’ve seen success.”

If the International High School at Prospect Heights in Brooklyn is an example of all that can be accomplished when immigrant students are taught under a successful public school model, Lafayette High School is an example of all that can be lost.

While the Brooklyn school has a four-year graduation rate of 66 percent, and nearly 80 percent of students graduate within six years, Lafayette graduates only a quarter of its students on time, and less than 40 percent within six years.

It’s not because the teachers at Lafayette care any less. Teachers at both schools stay late to plan and tutor. Both schools offer a welcoming environment for immigrant kids who work hard and possess personal stories that could make you cry.

But Lafayette is different from the Brooklyn school in important ways.

Lafayette still struggles to find its footing after a five-year influx of refugee children. Many teachers lack the training or confidence to assist these students, yet the district keeps sending more immigrant students their way. The district does not have a strong recruitment plan for teachers experienced with this population. The school juggles a number of different programs rather than committing to one proven model for educating immigrant children who speak another language. And one approach it uses – grouping its weakest students together and inundating them with adult teachers and translators – comes at a big cost.

All that leaves Lafayette struggling. “Those kids are in a spiral,” Tisch said, “and we’re losing them as we’re sitting here.”

While the Brooklyn school has a student enrollment similar to Lafayette’s, administrators in Buffalo say their burden is heavier than any New York City school because Buffalo is a designated refugee resettlement area with more students who arrive with little to no formal education. Lafayette also enrolls far more students with disabilities.

But the academic struggles at Lafayette are echoed in schools across the city and upstate New York. It’s no coincidence that three of Buffalo’s four worst-performing high schools enroll the highest numbers of struggling immigrant children. The Buffalo Public Schools are responsible for educating nearly twice as many English language learners now – 4,300 – as six years ago, district officials say. Only 2 percent of these students currently attend schools in good standing.

Some consider these children to be a drain on district resources. But if given proper support, these students are capable of great accomplishments. Over the past several years, roughly one out of every three Buffalo valedictorians and salutatorians have come from this immigrant population.

Weak teacher training

The oldest high school in Buffalo, the French Renaissance-style Lafayette building exudes a formality not found in schools today. The school’s motto hangs in black letters on the window overlooking the main staircase: Be Strong and of Good Courage.

That motto may mean more to the students and staff at Lafayette today than it did to those who opened the school in 1903.

In the last five years, Lafayette has gone from being a school that served only black, white and Hispanic students to a school where the sounds of Nepali, Somali, Karen, Bengali, Burmese and dozens of other languages fill the hallways.

Teaching these children requires teachers with special skills and training. But many teachers here don’t have or use these skills.

In one biology class, MaryJo Hellerer moves energetically at the front of the class, attempting to convey the concept of genetic engineering. The 22-year veteran of Lafayette shows pictures on a screen of cloned sheep and a diagram of an insulin gene removed from a human and inserted into bacteria.

As in many other classrooms, the students are respectfully quiet. They dutifully copy definitions of difficult words and look up the definition of the word “gene” in their notes.

Hellerer taps the screen.

“They love to ask this on the exam,” she tells the students, referring to the state Regents tests.

She tries to engage the students in a question-and-answer period, but about half the students don’t participate. When class is over, Hellerer wonders how much her students learned.

She has sat in on teacher workshops, incorporated more pictures and diagrams in her lessons, put up a word wall and spent more time on non-science vocabulary.

But she still worries she’s falling short. When she hears that other schools with large numbers of immigrant children graduate high numbers of students, she wants to know how they do it.

“If someone’s getting it, and it’s working, why aren’t you hooking us up with that?” she said. “Because we’ll do it. We’ll try anything.”

Though Lafayette has enrolled a majority of immigrant high school students for three consecutive years, school administrators estimate that only a fourth of the teachers have received the in-depth training they need to succeed.

The most successful method of educating English language learners is called SIOP. It’s an instruction method that gives students with limited English a way to understand grade-level content. But it’s difficult to learn and harder to put into practice. It requires a looser classroom management style, tailored lesson planning and relinquishing more teaching authority to students. Even though schools across the country have used this model for more than a decade, it has been slow to take root here.

District-level administrators say hundreds of city teachers have this training. But many teachers are still uncomfortable with the model or haven’t effectively used or shared what they learned. They say teachers need to adapt.

Lafayette administrators blame the district. They say that before last year, the district only offered sporadic training for a handful of teachers at a time. Teachers say the training is often offered at the end of the school year or during the summer, when teachers have the least opportunity to practice what they learn.

Principal Naomi Cerre mentions the 23 new teachers just added to her faculty. She wonders how long it will take for them to get the training they will need to succeed.

“This should have been an investment by the district a long time ago,” she says.

Lack of identity

Some Lafayette High School alumni remember the high school as a place of greatness.

As the oldest – and perhaps the most beautiful – high school in Buffalo, Lafayette boasts an extensive Alumni Wall of Fame behind its majestic auditorium. Rich red brick, curved terra cotta trim and green copper cupolas adorn the stately building.

“When it was designed, we were expecting the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, and I think we wanted to show off public education to the world,” said Paul McDonnell, the district’s architect and director of facilities.

Future doctors, lawyers, judges, journalists and professors graduated from this Upper West Side school. A silver Harvard Cup from 1909 adorns one of two tall trophy cases that flank the main staircase into the school.

But these days, the school struggles to support an unwieldy number of academic programs, none of which it does particularly well.

Lafayette enrolls regular education students but also offers a “newcomers” program for low-level immigrant learners, a bilingual Spanish program, a special-education program and even a bilingual special-education program. The school also runs a junior high school program for more than 200 seventh- and eighth-graders, half needing English language services. Because the school offers such an assortment of programs, school administrators say the district assigns a disproportionate number of high-needs students there.

In one ninth-grade global history class, a teacher who doesn’t speak Spanish is assigned to teach a bilingual Spanish class because the teacher originally assigned to the class abruptly retired. Armed only with the Spanish he took in high school, the teacher directs the students in English while putting up questions on the overhead projector written in Spanish.

There are supposed to be 17 students in the class, but only nine show up. They chat and joke in Spanish, paying marginal attention to what is being taught.

The district makes limited attempts to recruit teachers beyond Western New York, despite the shortage of faculty who have experience working with non-English speakers. And unlike the Internationals Network for Public Schools in New York City, the district has no way to fast-track teacher certification for immigrants who already live in Buffalo.

While Lafayette employs many teachers certified in English as a second language, ESL Coordinator Jessica Gilmartin said, “More than half are brand new, with only two years of experience or less.”

Cerre and her staff want to pare down school programs and rededicate Lafayette as an “International Newcomer Academy” focused on educating low-achieving ninth- and 10th-grade immigrants. The goal would be to provide accelerated instruction for up to two years and then transfer them to traditional high schools.

Newcomer academies exist elsewhere. While some have had reasonable success, others have failed because of high costs and low achievement. Rochester opened one three years ago.

Cerre said she believes it is a model that will work. More importantly, she said, it is what her students deserve.

Right now, she said, she is educating children who have been victimized in their home countries, then arrived in Buffalo only to be further victimized by the broken school model here.

“That’s what’s so heartbreaking for us,” she said.

Cost of indecision

The Buffalo Public Schools doesn’t embrace any one proven strategy for teaching immigrant children. It doesn’t have a strategic plan for where and how these students should be placed among the district’s 50 schools. Principals with no ESL background say they must develop their own turnaround plans.

Inevitably, this means more district resources and more money.

Lafayette has more than twice as many teachers as the Brooklyn school. And at last Wednesday night’s meeting, School Board members were asked to hire half a dozen more full-time English and math coaches, plus additional staff for the middle school.

The cost: An additional $770,000 in grants and operating money.

That led to a spirited debate about the district’s partnership with Johns Hopkins University, and the value of assigning so many staff to Lafayette.

“I’m just asking the question: Is what we’re doing the best?” board member Larry Quinn asked.

At Lafayette, it isn’t unusual to see several adults teaching or assisting in a classroom with a dozen or fewer students, particularly refugee students who come to school with limited or no formal education. In many cases, the school relies on ESL teachers to instruct alongside regular teachers, and the demand for translators is great.

Charles Lambros, a 12th-grade English teacher, walked into a classroom with only three students that day. He was met by veteran ESL teacher Robert Johnson.

Together, with the help of some stick-figure drawings on the white board and an audiobook recording, they nudged their three students through a reading of John Steinbeck’s 1947 novella, “The Pearl.”

“Kino’s eyes were ...”

“Hooded,” Lambros prompted the 20-year-old senior.

“Hooded,” she repeated. “His eyes were drawn ...”

“Taut,” Lambros supplied, as he and the ESL teacher struggled to explain the word.

As the students continued, Lambros pulled out a copy of practice questions from the English Regents exam. It asked for students to dissect and draw conclusions about a poem filled with American expressions.

“You see the gulf between this and that?” he asked.

Because Lafayette groups the weakest students together, the burden falls to the teachers and paid translators to bridge the divide.

Lambros noted that there were only 18 days left in the school year. He didn’t know if his students would make it. As the class period and school day ended, the Carly Rae Jepsen pop song “Call Me Maybe” came on over the PA system.

“This is crazy,” Jepsen repeatedly sang in the refrain.

Lambros looked up at the invisible lyrics and muttered, “This is appropriate.”

State education officials, from the commissioner down, have repeatedly suggested that the Internationals Network of Public Schools, based in New York City, would be an excellent model for Buffalo. The Buffalo district has not pursued it, citing the cost.

When Chancellor Tisch visited Lafayette, she kept pace with her tour guide and looked alertly at the material students were using at their desks. With Assemblyman Ryan at her elbow, arguing for the need for more state resources, Tisch questioned how Lafayette was using the resources it already has.

“There are many other high schools around the state who have very similar challenges,” she said. “We do not need to reinvent the wheel.”

Johns Hopkins’ role

Johns Hopkins is supposed to be a saving grace for Lafayette. Some teachers say it has been a big help. Others describe its efforts as “totally insufficient.”

Lafayette was already struggling before it became home to a huge refugee population. To boost its academic results, the school agreed to partner with Johns Hopkins University Talent Development Secondary. Because of repeated grant rejections, that group’s work wasn’t funded until last year.

Johns Hopkins promotes itself as having 15 years of experience turning around low-achieving high schools. What it doesn’t have is much experience working with non-English-speaking immigrant students. So the organization hired consultant Margarita Calderon, a retired Johns Hopkins professor, who developed an English language comprehension curriculum.

Social studies teacher Joshua Ostroff said Calderon’s training has made him a better teacher – and a busier one. He scrapped his old lesson plans after learning Calderon’s curriculum model.

“It took me seven hours to change my next couple of lessons,” he says.

In a recent lesson about the British Empire’s interest in the Suez Canal, Ostroff breaks down a long textbook passage into a five-page handout filled with maps, key questions and vocabulary words.

Large sheets of vocabulary words hang from his walls, while a video of a ship’s passage through the Suez Canal is projected on a white screen. For many concepts, students are given more than one way of understanding the information.

Ostroff keeps a log book that tracks all the extra time he has spent redoing his lessons. Those hours surpass all the summer and break time he gets off during the year, he says. That is the price of this commitment.

Ostroff says he has learned a lot, but like every other teacher there, he believes there’s more he needs to know. That message rings home with him every time he grades his students’ Regents exams.

“I’ll be honest with you,” he says. “I’ve cried out of joy, and I’ve cried out of sadness.”

Rocky’s story

Ostroff is a favorite teacher of William “Rocky” Sandjo Ntachtchoua.

Rocky is a 17-year-old teenager from Cameroon. He sits in the noisy cafeteria and speaks about terrible experiences in the unfazed tone of a boy used to trauma.

Two months ago, Rocky buried his father.

His father was Lambo Sandjo Pierre Roger, a famous singer and political prisoner in Cameroon better known as Lapiro de Mbanga. Hailed as “the people’s voice,” his songs became an anthem for the students protesting the leadership of Cameroon President Paul Biya in 2008.

Despite international pressure for Mbanga’s release, he nearly died from three years of hunger and illness in prison. Police terrorized his family even after his release in 2011.

He was granted political asylum in the United States in 2012, and the family settled in Buffalo in January 2013. Not everyone came, though.

Rocky has a twin sister he hasn’t seen in more than two years. Her cellphone number stopped working a long time ago, and he fears for her. She loved school as much as he did, but she also was regularly beaten by their older brother, he says. Once, when Rocky wasn’t home, she was beaten so badly that she refused to journey to the United States with the rest of the family.

“My father really, really cried,” he says.

Rocky has lived here with his father, stepmother, older brother and younger sister. But they have had little time together as a family. Mbanga was diagnosed with bone cancer and admitted to Roswell Park Cancer Institute. He died March 16 at the age of 56.

Rocky perseveres. He speaks English fluently now after studying for countless hours on his own time. He talks about his dreams of attending college but worries his SAT scores aren’t high enough.

He wants to take them again. But if he quits his job as a dishwasher, which he wants to do, he won’t be able to afford the $50 fee. Principal Naomi Cerre says the school will cover it.

Signs of progress

There are signs of hope at Lafayette.

Rocky is one example. He was accepted at SUNY Buffalo State and will attend tuition-free this fall with the assistance of Say Yes Buffalo.

In one ninth-grade English class, students wrapped up a four-week study of “Romeo and Juliet” by writing essays and creating iPad movie trailers. Students from Yemen, Tanzania, Nepal, Puerto Rico, Rwanda and Malaysia cluster together in small groups, putting the finishing touches on their 1½-minute trailers for a Friday “Film Fest.”

The trailers feature scene re-enactments of the meeting of the lovers, the death of Mercutio, and titles like: “The love of enemies for ever.”

Melissa Meola Shanahan, an English coach, helped develop the student project after participating in a University at Buffalo project that gives teachers the skills to teach the Common Core with assistance from multimedia technology.

As often as possible, she said, she helps teachers use multimedia and art in their lesson plans so that students stay engaged and absorb information.

Administrators say Lafayette is finally retaining more of its younger students after several years of high dropout numbers, putting the school on track to graduate higher numbers of students down the road.

With the district’s recent creation of the STAR Academy for overage, undercredited students and the addition of a temporary immigrant placement specialist in the district’s Central Registration Office, administrators say fewer students are being “dumped” at Lafayette without consideration for where they might best succeed.

Lafayette will also roll out a new curriculum this fall designed for eighth- and ninth-grade immigrants who have limited formal education.

Principal Cerre outlined other plans that would leverage assistance from area universities: more college-level courses for advanced students and more vocational and career-oriented programs for everyone.

“Our partnerships with the universities are going to be huge,” she said.

Challenges remain

These plans come too late to help many students who should have graduated this past June. Cerre said she expects the graduation rate for this past school year to be the same as the year before, if not lower.

Too many students had already dropped out. Staff said 2010 was a year when many feared the school would eventually be closed, so the placement office dumped “leftover” kids there. Most were transferred in after their freshman year, and half of them simply quit.

Cerre said the school should see “huge changes” in its graduation rate in two to three years.

But not everyone is willing to wait that long.

Tisch, the state’s top education official, referred to Lafayette’s 23 percent graduation rate from 2012.

“That means 77 percent of those kids are getting a ticket to no place,” she said. “So please don’t give me reasons for why a model like that should be sustained.”

email: stan@buffnews.com