BUFFALO - They come from Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, and Myanmar; others from Vietnam, Nepal and Thailand.
In all, there are students from 70 different countries attending Buffalo Public International School 45, where as many as 30 languages besides English are spoken.
"Many of our children have seen famine and civil war, their families have been persecuted... some have been in refugee camps," said Phyllis Mays, a fourth-grade teacher and Buffalo Teachers Federation member. "They never attended school. Some had never even held a pencil. And the expectation for them now is to take a standardized test."
It is just one of the many cold, hard truths in Gov. Andrew Cuomo's New York, where students have for too long been shortchanged and teachers demonized by the state's chief executive.
Well, in Buffalo, they've had enough.
That's why Tuesday night, some 800 parents, educators, public-education advocates and concerned community members gathered downtown at Kleinhans Music Hall to "indict" the governor during a mock grand jury proceeding in which BTF President Phil Rumore served as prosecutor.
The charges against Cuomo were many:
- depriving students the funding necessary to provide them with their Constitutional right to a sound, basic education;
- underfunding the state's public colleges and universities;
- "brutalizing" New York's students - including English language learners and special education students - by forcing upon them standardized tests;
- falsely labeling schools and teachers as "failing," while ignoring that standardized tests penalize schools with large numbers of students who speak little or no English and live in poverty; and
- undermining local control
Todd Hathaway, a former teacher at Bennett High School in Buffalo who now teaches in the wealthier Erie County suburban district of East Aurora, noted that his current students performed "remarkably" better on standardized tests compared to the kids he taught in the city.
"It wasn't because of me," said Hathaway. "It was because of poverty. That was the major difference."
Standardized tests, Hathaway said, hold "no validity, whatsoever." All they measure, he added, "is zip codes and household incomes."
That Cuomo's mock "indictment" took place in Buffalo is no accident. In spewing his often-inflammatory rhetoric about "failing schools," the governor often points to the Queen City as Exhibit A.
"Our kids come to school with problems few can understand," said Rumore.
Poverty in Buffalo is among the nation's worst and its per-capita violent crime rate is higher than New York City's, according to FBI statistics. When kids are worried about how their family will get by and whether they are safe, Rumore said, they aren't ready to learn.
But exacerbating the district's challenges has been chronic underfunding from Albany - a problem so significant that it has left half of the state's 700 school systems now operating on aid below 2008 levels.
BTF President Phil Rumore served as prosecutor. Photo by Dennis Stierer.
In Buffalo, that persistent underfunding has inflated kindergarten class sizes to more than 30 students. Its left students without necessary classroom materials. And it has had a particularly devastating impact on English language learners, said Abdulla Al-Jandari, a support teacher at Buffalo's public International Preparatory School at Grover Cleveland.
"Students are left sitting in class without services because there are not enough support teachers to help them," he said of the students he serves who speak Middle Eastern and North African languages.
The many different languages and cultures in Buffalo's public schools, along with the varying abilities of its students, underscores the need for school psychologists and guidance counselors who work closely with these children and their families, said Barbara Hall, who has worked as a psychologist in the district for 30 years.
"Variables such as these effect how children learn and behave in school," she said. But Hall also noted that budget cuts are threatening the very staff positions needed to help ensure such students succeed.
The state today is nearly $5 billion behind in aid owed to high-needs schools, according to the landmark 2003 Campaign for Fiscal Equity ruling by the Court of Appeals. But rather than provide the funding as required under the decision, Cuomo has instead opted to hold state-aid increases hostage in exchange for the passage of his proposed "education reform" plan and spend $1.7 million fighting off a lawsuit dealing with the issue of small cities school funding.
Such behavior prompted Citizen Action of New York State Vice President Jim Anderson to characterize Cuomo - who claimed he was an "advocate" for the students - as "Gov. Pinocchio."
"The governor is not right. So, we must indict," Anderson said.
After hearing the evidence presented by Mays, Hathaway, Hall, Al-Jandari and others, Rumore asked the hundreds in attendance Tuesday night - who made up the grand jury - to return a verdict. They did so promptly: Gov. Cuomo, they said, was "guilty" on all counts.
"The joy of learning is why I became a teacher," said city school teacher Teresa Leatherbarrow, adding that she is not concerned with whether her fourth-grade students are college and career ready at this time.
"They will be college and career ready someday, but it won't be because of (standardized) tests," she said. "It will be because of a rich and balanced curriculum."
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