Growing Refugee Population Creating Challenges for Educators

April 30, 2013 Updated Apr 30, 2013 at 11:30 PM EDT

By WKBW Internet

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April 30, 2013 Updated Apr 30, 2013 at 11:30 PM EDT

BUFFALO, NY (WKBW) - Educators in the City of Buffalo are facing a growing a problem. And it's a problem that is tied directly to influx of refugees coming into the city.

Buffalo is now the largest recipient of refugees in the State of New York with about 2,000 coming to the city each year. 1-percent of the ethnic population in Buffalo is made up of refugees from Burma.

"The face of Buffalo is changing. Our refugee and immigrant population has been growing by leaps and bounds especially over the past six years," says Tamara Alsace, the Director of Multilingual Education with the Buffalo Public Schools.

In that time, the number of students in the Buffalo Public Schools who do not speak English has nearly doubled to more than 4,000 students. Within that population, there are nearly 70 different languages spoken.

Despite the fact that many of these students have never learned English, they are given just one year before they are forced to take the state English exam, which they need to pass to receive a diploma.

"So imagine going to another country where you have never spoken the language and after a year you are being tested in that language in competition with native speakers who have been in that country their whole life," explains Alsace.

"It's a flawed system. And I think that many people in the Buffalo Schools would probably agree with that. It's not working for the refugee population," says Melinda Ramey, a teacher with the 'Making a Connection' Academy.

With limited resources and immense pressure, many of these students fail or drop out, never fully learning English and making it very difficult to find a job.

George Konsoko, a 19-year-old refugee from Congo would have been placed in 9th grade in a public high school when he came to the United States last year. That means he would have been too old to graduate before hitting the cut-off age of 21, even though he spoke basic English when he arrived.

But thanks to a new pilot program between the Buffalo Public Schools and Journey's End, a refugee services organization, George now has an option for an education.

The 'Making a Connection Academy' provides English language and vocational education without the rigors and time restraints of the public school system with the goal of each student earning their G.E.D.

There are currently 30 students enrolled in the academy, which just received approval from the state to extend the program for four years. It's a move that has educators excited for possibility of expanding the program elsewhere, and for the future of the students who have already endured much just to arrive in the U.S.

"It's very hard to watch some of our students have to deal with some of things they have been given, but they have been given the endurance to do it and you can just see it in their eyes. They're not quitters," added Ramey.

The issue has also grabbed the attention of the Buffalo School Board, who just last year created a formal committee for 'English Language Learners' (ELL).

For more information on Educational services through Journey's End, click here.