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At Newcomer Academy, two former refugees have one thing on their minds: graduation

Student portraits
Left: Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News; Right: Courtesy of Melody Konde
Dule Sa Ta, left, and Melody Konde, both high school seniors at Buffalo's Newcomer Academy, are eager to hear about plans for their graduation ceremony.

High school seniors who attend Buffalo Public Schools, including some of the newest immigrant and refugee arrivals to the United States, are eagerly awaiting plans for an unusual graduation season. To learn more, WBFO’s education reporter Kyle Mackie interviewed two seniors at Newcomer Academy.

The Buffalo school district’s population of multilingual and English Language Learners has more than doubled over the past 10 years. Even so, P.S. #353 Newcomer Academy at Lafayette is still a little different than most schools.

“Newcomer Academy, it’s really a nice school, like for people who don’t know how to speak English,” explained Melody Konde, 17. “It’s a really good school.”

Konde is a senior at Newcomer Academy, which is located in the same building as P.S. #207 Lafayette International Community High School on Buffalo’s West Side. Newcomer students will also be absorbed into Lafayette starting next fall, following a vote by the Buffalo school board Wednesday to close the school in order to balance the district's 2020-2021 budget. Lafayette currently serves students who have been in the U.S. for less than six years.

Credit Friscocali/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)
The historic Lafayette High School building is located at 370 Lafayette Avenue on Buffalo's West Side.

Like most of the other students who have studied at Newcomer since it opened in 2015, Konde arrived in the U.S. less than a year before she started at the school, when she was 15 years old. Her family is from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where she was born before spending much of her youth in a refugee camp in Zambia. That’s a pretty typical backstory for a Newcomer student.

“At that school, you enjoy more because you find people from different countries and like people from your country,” Konde said, “and so, even if it’s hard for you to speak English, then you’ll find someone to help you or to translate in your home language.”

“All of my students are immigrant and refugee students, so they all come to the United States from non-English speaking countries,” said Cheryl DiMare, a school counselor at Newcomer. In addition to lower English proficiency levels to start with, DiMare said many students also arrive with a history of interrupted or inconsistent formal education. But that doesn’t mean they get a break.

“Even though they might be 17 coming into the ninth grade and knowing little to no English, they still have to meet the same graduation requirements as any other student,” DiMare said.

Current English Language Learners do get some extra help, like being allowed an interpreter and unlimited time on Regents exams, if they need it, and there’s a low pass appeal process for English Language Arts class, but essentially the rules are the same. So, graduation is a huge deal for students like Konde.

Credit Courtesy of Melody Konde
Konde told WBFO that she's eager to leave her house, see friends and return to church once it's safe.

“For the graduation, this, like, this is the one which makes me, I don’t know, feel like I’m going crazy [during this pandemic] because I’ve heard that there will be no graduations,” Konde said. “It’s not normal. We don’t know, I don’t know how we’re going to graduate.”

The ceremony is also a big concern for Dule Sa Ta, also 17 and another Newcomer Academy senior. Dule Sa Ta is Karen, which is the name of both a language and Burmese ethnic group, but she was born and raised in Thailand.

“At first I thought it [graduation] was canceled because I feel like, my sister is telling me that she's graduating online, and I thought that if college are graduating from online, that it’s [a] possibility that high schools are not graduating, having a ceremony,” Dule Sa Ta said.

Dule Sa Ta’s sister attended the University at Buffalo, which has been holding virtual commencement ceremonies throughout May. WBFO’s original interviews with Konde and Dule Sa Ta were conducted in April, but the students shouldn’t have to wait much longer to find out Newcomer Academy’s plan: The Buffalo school district recently put out a memo that said all schools will announce their graduation plans no later than the week of June 1.

Both young women will also be relieved as Western New York continues to gradually reopen, even with continued social distancing measures in place.

Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News
Dule Sa Ta speaks to WBFO education reporter Kyle Mackie via Skype in April.

“I’m not scared of it [the virus] a lot but my mom is telling me to stay inside and didn’t let me go out because she’s scared of it,” Dule Sa Ta said. “My mom goes to work every day and then my sister is always in her room and I’m always in my room, doing our work. I miss being with my friends and teachers, with help, because being at home no one can really help you with your stuff.”

“Right now, I’m just home doing nothing, which is really bad because I’m not used to just staying home, to just stay at the same place,” Konde said. “It’s just really kind of — I’m just struggling.”

Konde said it’s also hard for the culture she’s part of to stay away from work and other people.

“People from Africa, they’re not used to like — Congolese or anyone — they’re not used to stay[ing] at home. They like working so they can provide for their families, so this lockdown is really hard for them,” Konde said before adding that several members of her own family have temporarily lost work.

Across the country, COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted people of color, including immigrants and refugees, both in terms of infections and deaths from the virus and the overall financial fallout of the pandemic. Many immigrants, such as undocumented taxpayers, mixed-status families and refugees who arrived in 2020, were excluded from getting government stimulus checks. And undocumented immigrants, who make up at least 10% of restaurant workers nationwide, are also ineligible for unemployment benefits.

Of concern in Buffalo, The Buffalo News has also reported on an outbreak of the novel coronavirus among the city’s Karen community. Karen students represent one of the largest groups of English Language Learners in Buffalo Public Schools.

Amid these difficulties, DiMare said Newcomer Academy is firmly committed to celebrating its seniors, who will now be the school's fourth and final graduating class.

“Even if it means we can’t, you know, maintain our anticipated graduation date [June 25], for whatever reasons, if it means that we have to push it back to sometime over the summer, I’m sure that we’re still going to do something to be able to celebrate the kids,” DiMare said. “It’s only right.”

Speaking to WBFO Wednesday, DiMare added that the school is currently awaiting district approval on some kind of in-person, socially distanced ceremony. She also said at least 72 of the school’s 78 seniors are on track to graduate. Both Konde and Dule Sa Ta plan to start college at SUNY Erie this fall—Konde to study to become a dental hygienist, and Dule Sa Ta, a nurse.

Kyle Mackie is a multimedia journalist with reporting experience in Israel and the Palestinian territories, the Western Balkans and New York City. She joined WBFO to cover education and more in June 2019.
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