It’s a cold, sunny Monday and progress is in the air. The intersection of Delaware and Chippewa beats with morning energy. A construction project is going up across the street. Beer delivery trucks are parked lackadaisically along Chippewa. There is a tinge of spring rejuvenation, and I like it. Plus, I’m enthused to meet Finune Shaibi, the Supervisor of Multilingual Student Placement for the Buffalo Public School District.
Shaibi is an administrator at the Central Registration Center. She is, as she says, a critical eye who looks at the data of immigrant families registering for school. She observes with daily regularity scores of families seeking Buffalo as their new home, to make life better for generations to come. Shaibi herself recognizes, in those families, the faces of her own parents and siblings. Her family immigrated from Yemen. Shaibi’s mother was literally pregnant with her at the time.
Finune and I sit down for some coffee and conversation. I want to learn about what the Buffalo Public Schools are doing to welcome immigrants and refugees, and the progress being made in our public education department.
English Language Learners (ELLs) have been part of the culture of Western New York for a decade. My parents immigrated from Yemen. They came here in the 1980’s. My mother was eight months pregnant with me at the time. She told me the story of having her sister bind her stomach. When you apply to come to the US, you have to document how many children you have. That process takes a really long time. By the time they approved her Visa to come to the United States, she was eight months pregnant. They approved four family members to go. She knew that if they knew [she was pregnant], she couldn’t fly. The decision would have been, to let the three go on and leave her there? So they disguised it.
Being a teacher, students from all over the world have stories like this all the time. I got here exactly the same way that they did. I walked into school on the first day not knowing a word of English. I’m from one of the few Arabic-speaking families that did not grow up in Lackawanna. I grew up on the West Side of Buffalo. I felt like even more of an outsider. I spent 18 years on the West Side, and there wasn’t anyone else like us. That was a culture shock. My first day of school, I had no idea what was going on.
“Subgroups” are the buzzwords right now. There are New Entrants. There are what we call Re-Entrants. We have many who are coming to America, going back home, and then coming back. We have a lot of what we call Second Migration English Learners, which means they are refugees in which one family is getting resettled in Western New York, the other is getting settled in another city and through social media and other things, a second migration happens. What we are seeing is that we are the location of the second migration. We have over 80 different languages, many of which the state recognizes as “low incident” languages. Droves of families come every day to register at our Buffalo Public Schools. It’s amazing to see.
Food is one of the hardest things for people not of this culture. Many of them eat food that’s of an animal and you can see what part it is from – a chicken breast, for example. In American culture there is a lot of processed food that doesn’t come a certain way, you have to change it. Like pizza and hamburgers. At least a chicken wing shows that it’s the wing of a chicken. But things like hot dogs and chips, without anything from home to compare it to, and because of different dietary restrictions, it is confusing. Some don’t eat beef, some don’t eat pork. So you learn how to navigate cultures and which ones overlap.
Something that is typical of ELLs is, your parents are not involved. They don’t speak English. They do not go to parent/teacher conferences, or sign your homework, or notify your teacher if you are going to be absent. I remember having to adapt to that. I would sign my own permission slips and letters. I would would wake up and my parents would be at work, and I would go to bed and they would still be at work. My eldest sister took care of us while my parents struggled to make a living.
It is like saying goodbye to the rest of your life, to everything you have ever known your entire life, to come to America. My father said, “I sacrificed because of you and your generation.” If you look at the disparities between the way he grew up and the way I am growing up and raising my children – in one generation, myself and my siblings all went into successful, professional fields, any one generation back, my father was in extreme poverty in Yemen. That was my motivating factor.
Education is one thing that’s not ignored in other cultures. I’ll never forget my dad saying, ‘They can take your money, your car, your house, but one thing they can never take from you is your education.’ You will be your own creator of your destiny. That’s why I got into education. Regardless of how all of these factors may be working against you, you are truly your own learner. With the support of my parents, I knew that once I received my education, I would truly have independence. This is the greatest country in the world because you can be self-sufficient if you work as hard as you possibly can.
When I won the Canisius College Urban Leadership Scholarship that was the highest accomplishment of my life. It was a full ride. It focused on giving back to your community. It was in those years that I was able to open the chapters of Buffalo and see all the demographics, to how many students grew up just like me. That is what propelled me into the ELL education world. My first year of teaching, I was a chemistry teacher. I did it for a year. I knew there was something missing.
At every training I do for the teachers, I say that when I walked into school, I did not know a word of English. So that child who doesn’t know English has all the potential to do great things in life.
They come with an intrinsic motivation to be better – not only to do better for themselves, but to do better for their families. One child can change the generational history of their family. I easily could have gone the very traditional route of marriage and being a homemaker who was pulled out of high school and stayed home. This is such a new field. When you have 5,000 kids who don’t speak English, we are figuring out what works and what doesn’t work.
Back then when I was an ELL, the population was smaller – under 1,000. When I was put in School 45, the International School, there weren’t as many students. We had smaller teacher/student ratios and we were all in one building. It was only School 45 supporting this population. If you look at School 45 now, over the 20 years since I was a student there, they are the only school is this district that was able to take a 60 percent ELL school from low standing/low performing to good standing. That is due to specialized training over 20 years.
Our personnel has increased. We, for the first time this year, have an Assistant Superintendent of Multilingual Education. I think that’s key to allow for alignment of those in support of ELLs. In the past, we’ve had one superintendent here, one director there. The district has recognized that we are a substantial department. The superintendent has honed in because he knows that what is good for ELLs is good for all students. If there is a non-ELL in the class, they still benefit from the teaching and learning.
We will be hiring six registration cultural aides, and these will be in our top spoken languages – Somali, Karen, Burmese, and Nepali. The role of these individuals is to help facilitate the process. For so long, [non-English speakers] were sent in with no translator and no way to understand the information.
ELLs need native speakers to learn the language. Rather than put them in one school, the new teachers regulations are really pushing for bilingual education. This doesn’t only mean a teacher in your class who speaks your language. It’s having a teacher who speaks your language, and the target is bi-literacy. This means, to increase my Arabic skills while I’m also increasing my English, so that when I graduate, I am fluent in both. That is the vision we are going towards – true bi-literacy. We know that “English-only” is not effective. The more they know their own language, they will understand English better.