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Language barrier

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."

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