UB’s Buffalo Partnership Project changing the lives of refugee students

Various photos found on the website of the Buffalo Partnership Project.

Technology, collaboration between Graduate School of Education and Buffalo Public Schools teachers reaches the classroom

Release Date: May 30, 2014 This content is archived.

“These technological tools are wonderful supports for English-language learners, and we’re excited to see teachers using them to impact student learning for the better. ”
Fenice Boyd, principal investigator, Buffalo Partnership Project
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. – Buffalo Public School social studies teacher Lisa Spaulding has heard the background stories of the refugee students at Lafayette High School, particularly the ones told by the girls. “Absolutely hair-raising,” Spaulding says. “Frightening. All absolutely heart-breaking.”

And that’s why the work she has done with faculty and doctoral students in UB’s Graduate School of Education means so much. Spaulding teaches at a school designated for refugees emigrating to Buffalo because of what most commonly are traumatic, life-threatening circumstances.

Seventy percent of all students at Lafayette High School speak English as a second language. The students there speak 40 different languages. Spaulding often hears the stories behind the faces of her 110 refugee students. They demonstrate the adversity these children faced and the unmistakable progress they have made since arriving in the U.S.

These students are undeniable proof the Buffalo Partnership Project: A Common Core Collaborative (BPP Collaborative) has made a difference.

Using technology such as iPads funded through the BPP, the students and their teachers are able to share their stories and their learning experiences.

“These technological tools are wonderful supports for English-language learners, and we’re excited to see teachers using them to impact student learning for the better,” says Fenice Boyd, principal investigator of the BPP Collaborative and associate professor of literacy at UB. Boyd and BPP team members shared some compelling examples of how students have used these tools to tell their stories:

  • A 16-year-old girl from Eritrea recorded a story that described hiding under a burlap bag as she and her mother rode a camel on their way to safety in the Sudan. When soldiers approached, her mother hunched over her daughter under the burlap holding her mouth shut. If the soldiers caught them, they easily could have been killed.
  • Another girl who came to the U.S. from Burma struggled all year with hepatitis. This health concern has affected her learning, and she has had great difficulty reading and writing. But the girl took to an app that was part of a suite of tools identified and provided by the BPP Collaborative, and has showed the ability to pronounce and recognize words like “guerilla warfare” and “defoliant.” “She pronounced it correctly,” says Spaulding. “It’s something she can do. She’s good at it and it’s inspired her to be in school more frequently. If she wasn’t feeling well, she might have stayed home. This project has really drawn her in.”
  • Last March, teachers worried about an 18-year-old Burmese boy who could only recognize a few capital letters, four lower-case letters and no vowels. Now after working on an iPad, he’s been able to identify two important historical figures from World War II. “He has even started to pronounce the names,” says Spaulding. “That’s huge.”

These three Lafayette students are only a few examples of the success of the BPP Collaborative. The collaborative project, which began as a discussion among faculty in the UB Department of Learning and Instruction, has ended up impacting classrooms in one of the most challenging educational environments in the Buffalo Public Schools.

“What these folks have been doing is just terrific, such a positive Buffalo story,” says Mary McVee, director of UB’s Center for Literacy and Reading Instruction. “If anyone is looking for an education project that is having an observable impact on students’ learning, this project is it.”  

Lafayette High School, on the city’s West Side, is a drama-filled example of how education can play a crucial role in filling gaping needs of young people. In 2008, the district designated Lafayette as a school to serve the needs of immigrant and refugee students. Six years later, in what many see as a self-fulfilling prophecy, the state Department of Education declared it a “failing” school.

Thirty percent of Lafayette students are classified as SIFE, or Students with Interrupted Formal Education. That means these young people have endured an interruption of four years or more in their structured education, often because their families were in refugee camps or other life-threatening situations that caused major disruptions in the learning environments that most Western New York families take for granted.  

This past summer, the district almost closed the school, an event that received extensive media coverage. So the BPP Collaborative set out to change that negative perception, and in more than a small way. With one emphasis on using technology in meaningful, relevant methods, teachers and the BPP project staff set their sights on changing the culture and showing these high-needs students they can make progress.

“What we’re trying to do is reverse the narrative about Lafayette High School,” says Boyd. “It’s been identified as a ‘failing school’ and known for its low-test scores. There are a lot of good things going on there. There are a lot of hard-working students and hard-working teachers who are committed and dedicated.”

The public will get its chance to learn about the BPP Collaborative and meet the students and educators making it work at the “Voices of Lafayette High School’s Community” iPad expo from 1-3 p.m. June 7 in the Walden Galleria. Faculty and students will showcase the work being done by students and teachers in the corridor outside the Apple Store on the lower level of the mall.

“The teachers I work with are passionate about teaching and learning and meeting the particular challenges of working with English language learners in an urban setting.” says Jennifer Reichenberg, a UB doctoral student in reading education who serves as an instructional coach for the BPP Collaborative.

Reichenberg says the coaching relationship is truly a “collaboration” and it is a “privilege” to be part of it. Each BPP member brings a different area of expertise and the team works together to meet difficult challenges. Each teacher has particular goals, centered around English language learners, the Common Core Learning Standards (CCLS) and technology integration.

“The teachers work hard to help the students to learn under difficult circumstances,” says Reichenberg. “My role is to support the teachers in a differentiated manner. My job is to help them meet those goals through collaboration and support.”   

Along with integrating and applying iPads as tools for teaching and learning, the BPP project staff works with teachers to integrate the Common Core standards into instruction. And because Lafayette is such a “diversity rich” school community, language and culture is stressed as an important aspect of differentiated instruction.

“We want teachers and kids to use their own voices and their own words,” says Reichenberg. “We want to teach them to trust their own knowledge.”

Spaulding, the social studies teacher at Lafayette, says her training with the BPP Collaborative has reinforced a focus on instruction in which the students read their work out loud to themselves and each other.

“Kids need to be speaking to each other,” she says. “They need to be talking. It’s a different approach than how we used to teach. And the UB program has taught me concrete ways to get kids talking.

“Everything we’ve done in class has had a speaking, writing and listening component,” says Spaulding. “There is no doubt in my mind: The kids are learning better and retaining more.”

The BPP project uses a professional development-coaching model to support the classroom teachers and their students. According to Boyd, the model centers on a three-tiered approach: 

  • Full-day workshop sessions centered around the Common Core standards, text complexity, language and culture, and technology as a tool for instruction and inquiry.
  • After-school hands-on workshops where teachers work with their coaches and UB faculty to apply their instructional plans, whether they are units or lessons.
  • Coaching cycles that entail pre-planning, observations and reflections, with the support of an instructional coach.

“The program does not teach me how to teach social studies,” says Spaulding. “I know that already. It helps me teach global history to a population that does not understand English well, or not at all.

“I know how to get my kids talking to each other now. I didn’t have those tools until I started working with the UB program.”

Spaulding is unequivocally enthusiastic in her support of her students and her position as a teacher in Buffalo. Her refreshing and optimistic attitude comes from a mix of factors, but the Buffalo Partnership Project is certainly one.

“I’m blessed. I teach all refugees,” Spaulding says. “I wouldn’t exchange this job for any other in the city of Buffalo.”

For more information, visit the project’s website: http://www.bppcollaborative.blogspot.com/.  

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