Diversity run amok.
The two young Somali sisters sat at a table in the central registration center signing up for what would become their next big challenge in their journey to America – school.
They came to enroll in the Buffalo Public Schools at an old building on Ash Street, an Ellis Island of sorts for thousands of immigrants and refugees entering an education system that has struggled over the years to keep up with their growing numbers.
Many show up speaking no English. Others may have had little formal education in their home countries. Most encounter vast cultural differences.
The City of Buffalo has taken in thousands of immigrants and refugees in recent years, and it’s reflected in many of its schools. More than 85 different languages are spoken throughout the district, but that number can change by the day.
English language learners now make up 15 percent of the district’s enrollment, and as a whole, they are among the lowest-performing, state figures show. They also are the fastest-growing segment.
All of which constitutes challenges for the new arrivals, as well as for the district expected to teach them.
But last year, Buffalo – forced by necessity and new mandates – began making some long overdue changes at central registration intended to address its large customer base of students from foreign lands.
Chief among them is a new team of multilingual staffers who can speak to the students in their own language – and thus are able to sign them up for school, test their English, detail their prior education, and discuss with parents what to expect in the classroom.
The hope is to better serve this rising population of “New Americans” and better assess them so their teachers know their true academic potential.
A comforting language
“When they see someone that speaks their language, it makes them feel more comfortable,” said Abdi Yakub, one of the new language specialists.
Yakub, a former refugee now raising his own kids in Buffalo schools, spoke in Somali to a father and two little girls dressed in head scarves and matching pink coats.
He asked the older girl her name.
“Laila,” she said.
Yakub turned to the sister and asked the same. Her answer was inaudible, but she offered a coy smile revealing a patchwork of missing and baby teeth.
“Right now,” Yakub explained to a reporter, “their father says they have been to school and can write, read and speak English.”