The front hallway at Hurlburt W. Smith Elementary School in the city of Syracuse is lined with photos of the children who go there. Every student has his or her picture on the wall, which Principal Sharon Birnkrant calls “the kids’ corner of the school.” Now in the midst of Ramadan, Birnkrant’s office is always filled to the brim with students, their heads bowed in prayer, wearing the traditional garb of their home countries. The school welcomes students of all nationalities, embracing their customs, their diets and their languages.
“Our kids have advantages that other schools don’t,” Birnkrant said. “They’re really able to interact with the international community right here.”
Syracuse Teachers Association President Kate McKenna called Syracuse “a town where immigrants are welcome.” She pointed to ethnic neighborhoods on the north side of the city, noting that Syracuse has long made itself a new home to those who immigrated from abroad. Indeed, some 54 different languages are spoken by students in the city schools.
It sounds like a place that is serving non-native populations well. H.W. Smith would appear to be a shining example of the cultural melting pot, blending more than 40 nationalities in one happy building. It sounds like Syracuse is doing right by its students.
But that’s not what the federal government says.
According to the No Child Left Behind Act, New York is a state in need of oversight. Thus it has reversed its previous policy allowing ELL students, or English language learners, to take standardized tests given in third through eighth grade in their native languages for the first three years that they are in the U.S.
Now, immigrant students only have one calendar year to learn the language before they are forced to take standardized tests in English.
“Before, they could take the test in their native language to measure their competency in language arts,” said Carl Korn, communications director for the New York State United Teachers. “They used to have three years to do that before they had to take the language arts exam in English.”
In addition to the English/Language Arts exam in their native tongue, students would take the New York State English as a Second Language Aptitude Test to measure their growth in reading, writing and speaking English. But in August of this year, the requirements changed.
“The U.S. Department of Education reversed its own policy,” said Rich Ianuzzi, president of NYSUT. “These exams, which they had said were the right tools, are no longer acceptable.”
Students now have to take all standardized tests, including the ELA, in English just one calendar year after enrolling in school. According to Sonia Otero, coordinator of bilingual, ESL and foreign languages in the Syracuse City School District, some 1,400 students, or 91 percent of their ESL students, will be negatively impacted by the new regulations. They will not be prepared to take the exams in English in such a short time and will likely fail.
“[The U.S. Department of Education is] a bully who picks on the vulnerable,” Ianuzzi said. “It’s unfair. It’s wrong and unjust to both students and schools. It hurts the progress we’ve worked so hard to make in New York state to raise student achievement.”
Indeed, ESL students will not be the only ones impacted by the decision. Their poor scores will reflect on the schools, which could then be designated as failing schools or schools in need of supervision.
“Really, it will only affect schools that have welcomed international children,” Birnkrant said.
The educational community is reeling from the news.
“It won’t help them learn English any faster,” McKenna said. “Why put up this artificial barrier?”
“Research shows that they need more time to learn,” Otero agreed. “This goes against everything that research says about language acquisition.”
“Being tested takes time,” Syracuse Superintendent Dan Lowengard said. “You don’t fatten a cow by weighing it. You feed it.”
The regulations will have far-reaching impacts. In frustration over poor test scores, more and more international students will likely give up, and dropout rates could skyrocket. In addition, some of those students may be referred to special needs or special education services. This could take time and energy away from other students who actually do have special needs because of these faulty guidelines.
But the consequences may be even more dire.
“If you think of education as the basis for democracy,” McKenna said, “then we’re going back to 19th century standards [of suffrage]. We’re keeping them down. It’s just perpetuating the cycle.”
“We cannot let this happen,” Ianuzzi said. “These kids’ needs will not be met. We have to stand in front of the department of education and tell them no.”
McKenna suggested confronting both state and federal education departments. “We have to tell the state not to implement this,” she said.
Birnkrant, with her community of 700 students, many of them immigrants, agreed.
“I told the teachers to respond with their vote,” she said. “We submitted letters to the newspapers and did an interview on NPR.”
But what if the regulations are implemented? What if our kids are forced to fail by the government of the so-called land of the free?
“We just tell the kids we’ll help them the best we can,” Birnkrant said. “When our scores aren’t as high as other schools, we’ll just say, ‘Oh, well.’ The only way to fix the problem is to make the public aware. We have to become advocates for our kids.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.