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Buffalo Public Schools prepare for newly-arrived Afghan students

Courtney McCann, a Buffalo Public Schools ENL teacher, instructs some adult English-language learners in July 2019.
File Photo
Courtney McCann, a Buffalo Public Schools ENL teacher, instructs some adult English-language learners in July 2019. BPS is now preparing for the arrival of Afghan children into the district.

Milad Safary and his family are Hazaras, an ethnic minority often threatened by the Taliban. They left Afghanistan in 2015 and Safary is now president of the Afghan New Generation, a youth organization for young Afghans in the Buffalo area.

He said his generation were the first Afghans to get a taste of freedom; they were going to be the country’s engineers, doctors and politicians of the future. Now, after the Taliban retook the country last month, many of them are on the run or homeless in a foreign country.

“My friend Sharif, who was going to graduate this semester from Kabul University for electrical engineering, is now stuck in Kabul,” Safary said. “[He] says that the generation in Afghanistan was just like a seed who was about to sprout, but now there's literally no hope, because there's no one left there.”

That’s why, according to Safary and other refugee advocates, it’s crucial to give young Afghans that same opportunity in Buffalo.

Buffalo Public Schools will play a big part in that. Buffalo is expected to receive 350 Afghan humanitarian parolees over the next few months, and although it’s not immediately clear how many of them will be children, some of them will undoubtedly be minors in need of K-12 education.

BPS, a 32,000-student school district, already has 7,000 new American and multilingual students.

“Every year we get better at teaching and learning our multilingual learners,” said Nadia Nashir, BPS’ assistant superintendent for multilingual education.

BOPS has bolstered its English as a New Language (ENL) program since seeing an influx of English-language learners five years ago, Nashir said. That was around the end of the Obama Administration, when Buffalo saw its highest single-year total of incoming refugees, over 1,800.

BPS now has 221 staff trained ENL teachers, as well as aides, so English-language learners have someone in the classroom who can speak their language. They’ve also provided professional development to the rest of their teachers, on everything from language acquisition to trauma-informed care.

“How to recognize triggers, like recognize simple things, like the fire drill, or recognize conversations about war, so that they're mindful,” Nashir said.

BPS also partners with local refugee groups, including Journey’s End Refugee Services, which provides academic coaches, and Jewish Family Services of Western New York, which provides trauma therapy to refugee students.

“The Buffalo Public Schools has a tremendous history of building programs and working collegially with us to support the refugee youth,” said Jewish Family Services CEO Molly Carr. “Also to take the myriad of people coming in, the languages, the culture, and helping that become part of the fabric of the public schools.

Still, an influx of Afghans may be something of an adjustment for BPS, as it currently has only about three Afghan students.

The district will be looking to add interpreters who speak Pashto and other Afghan languages through their partnerships with refugee groups. It will also rely on Talking Points software, which can interpret text messages between teachers and non-English speaking parents.

Nashir said teachers don’t always have to differentiate how they teach an English-language learner versus an English native speaking student.

“So what you do for English-language learners, for example, if you scaffold, if you use visuals, if you define terms before reading a test, that's great for monolingual students,” she said. “So our teachers had been noticing that this is not a challenge, this is an opportunity to improve our skills at teaching all students.”

Tom Dinki joined WBFO in August 2019 to cover issues affecting older adults.
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