The difficulties many American high school and middle school students face in school are accommodated with opportunities for tutoring, student disability services and special education classes. Although these services may not fully help some students, there is still a plethora of resources available for them.
The refugee and immigrant youth may not be so lucky.
As a teenager fleeing their native home and settling in their host country, there are many challenges they face; adjusting to a new country with different and sometimes polar opposite cultural and societal norms, familiarization with new laws, learning the English language, and transitioning to a new school.
A previous article in Karibu News briefly discussed the struggles refugee and immigrant student’s face as they are placed in a grade level based on age.
This puts them at a disadvantage because the material they were taught in their native country may slightly differ from the material taught in Buffalo Public Schools. If the student cannot speak English, or is an LEP person, they are at a greater disadvantage for obvious reasons.
Madhey Sabtow, a Somali Bantu refugee, experienced and witnessed the challenges new Americans face in Buffalo Public Schools.
In 2004, Sabtow moved to Buffalo at the age of 18 and attended Glover Cleveland High School, which is now known as the International Preparatory School. He was placed in the ninth grade. Sabtow admits he had a slight advantage because he was taught British English while living in Kenya.
Although English as a Second Language (ESL) classes were helpful, Sabtow said they did not fully prepare him for other academic classes. His parents are illiterate in English and had no educational background, so he wasn’t able to seek help from them.
“The ESL teachers have 45 minutes and they cannot cover a lot of material. ESL classes cannot help you with math, ELA, social studies, global 9 and 10 and other subjects you have to take,” he said.
ESL classes are meant to teach basic communication skills. They do not teach the basics of other academic subjects, leaving the students in confusion when they attend the basic classes.
He also said the material taught in the school he attended in Kenya vastly differed from what he was expected to know in ninth grade, such as social studies, global studies and science.
“I failed the science Regents Exam twice. It was the toughest subject,” he said.
I asked Sabtow if and how his struggles were remedied.
“The resources weren’t there. The ESL teacher cannot do anything, she might not know the science or the global studies, she didn’t know what to do,” he said.
He took the initiative to do the research on his own and taught himself what he needed to know in order to pass. Sabtow took to the library and printed previous earth science exams to help him pass the Regents Exam. Unfortunately, his solution wasn’t an option for other students.
“I would say 90% of the students from my group didn’t graduate, they didn’t have the educational background it. They tried, but the resources weren’t there and nothing was helping them,” he said. “Some of them couldn’t speak the language, they couldn’t write their names, and they couldn’t keep trying without background education and the language barrier.”
College was a simpler journey. After graduating high school, Sabtow attended SUNY Buffalo State.
He said college was easier because there are no exams coming from the state, but instead are made by the professors. He also said there were a lot of resources available to him and the professors were readily available if further assistance was necessary.
After he graduated college, Sabtow went back to his high school and began working as an ESL support teacher. In his opinion, not much has changed.
“Kids still come by the same problem with Regent Exams. There are newcomers who cannot even write their names and they are put in the 8th or 9th grade.”
Disruptions from native English speakers made the situation tougher. Sabtow said it was difficult to pay attention and hear the teacher when “10 native speakers are interrupting the class, talking over the teachers and the bilingual students can’t understand what the teacher is saying.”
Sabtow encourages current high school students in similar situations to seek out refugee graduates and ask for help. He believes more resources, such as I.T. programs or bilingual teachers could prevent students from dropping out and lead to a promising future.