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Education

Lafayette High School student depicts refugee life in self-portrait

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Eileen Buckley/WBFO News
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Toe Toe Lay's self-portrait

Despite language barriers, one of the many refugee students at Lafayette High School in Buffalo has successfully completed his four years. WBFO'S Focus on Education Reporter Eileen Buckley spoke with the student, who created a powerful self-portrait in his art class displaying the strife he left behind in his home country and the difficulties he experienced while living in Buffalo.

Lafayette High School Senior Toetoe Lay was among the students summoned to rehearsal for their June 25 graduation.

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Credit WBFO News photo by Eileen Buckley
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The sign outside Lafayette High School in Buffalo reflecting the end of the school year.

For Lay, this is a major accomplishment.  He is Karen and came to Buffalo only four years ago to escape the oppression of living in a refugee camp in Burma for most of his life.  Lay is among Lafayette's massive population of immigrant and refugee students, in which about 40 different languages are spoken.

"He finished his regents exams on time, which is a huge deal for our student population at Lafayette," stated Cassie Lipsitz, Art Teacher at Lafayette. Lipsitz described Lay's response to questions about succeeding in school as 'modest'.

When Lay arrived, learning English was a major struggle.

"When I first came, I didn't know anything," said Lay.  WBFO News asked him if it has been difficult for Lay and his family. "Yes, for the first year," noted Lay. He said it is a little bit better now.

Lafayette -- considered a failing school -- has had low test scores and a low graduation rates.  A transformation plan is in the works to create an "International Newcomer Academy" at the high school. Lay is the exception. He has successfully completed his academics and is ready to graduate next month.

"I work hard. Listen to the teacher. I do what I have to do," said Lay.

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Lafayette Art Teacher Cassie Lipsitz & student ToeToe Lay.

"He finished his regents exams on time, which is a huge deal for our student population at Lafayette," stated Cassie Lipsitz, Art Teacher at Lafayette. Lipsitz described Lay's response to questions about succeeding in school as 'modest'.

"So the fact that Toe Toe started speaking English four years ago, and is now going to be graduating high school with a Regents diploma, is absolutely important for people to understand how much growth that is," said Lipsitz.

Lay took a studio art class featuring drawing and painting in media arts. It was in that class that teacher Lipsitz challenged students to tell a story through art. That's when Lay created his self-portrait to tell his story.

"She said, 'Tell about your story,'" said Lay. "Me, I love peace and I love sunflower -- that's my favorite flower. You're stronger at the night."

Lay's self-portrait is filled with some unhappiness. His is teacher said that Lay, living on the city's West Side, has witnessed violence. WBFO asked Lay why he painted blood in the portrait. "I see many big problem in American, that's my experience," said Lay.

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ToeToe Lay's description of his self-portrait.

"Many violence in city -- my neighborhood," explained Lay.

There is also a padlock painted on Lay's self-portrait of his own face. He said that represents 'trust -- trust in myself."

Lay said it took him three weeks to create the painting. 

With Lay's artwork posted inside the school walls, art teacher Lipsitz said it is important to share his creation with the community. She said it is very difficult for many of the Lafayette students who attend what is labeled a failing school.

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Lafayette Art Teacher Cassie Lipsitz in her classroom.

"It's hard, really, to articulate the things that the state is doing to us because of the language barrier and also because the students take it personally," noted Lipsitz. "And one of the things that the teachers in this building always say is, "I would love to see someone from the board or from higher ed, in state ed, take one of the regents exams Burmese, or Napoli or Arabic or Somali  -- and have them take that test and pass it -- and they won't -- they would never be able to."

For student Lay, he would like to attend Buffalo State College for design and architecture, but at the same time he explained that he misses those he left behind in Burma and he would like to return at some point. "I miss them a lot and I want to go back," said Lay.

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