In Depth: Coming to the Capital Region

February 23, 2017 07:12 PM

ALBANY - Since July, 400 new non-English speaking students have enrolled in Albany City Schools. Many of them are refugees. Six years ago there were 300 total. Now, more than four times that many are registered.

Because so many of these new students come from countries with problematic geo-political climates, many of the non-English speakers haven't been to school in years, or at all.

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In one room at Hackett Middle School, 17 students speak seven different languages.  It's a similar scene at all the schools in Albany. Fifty-seven languages are spoken in the homes of the kids who walk the district's halls and fill its classrooms.

However, for Christina Zontini, one of Albany's 21 newly hired ENL or English as New Language teachers, it is not a challenge.

"There is one common language and that's love and smiles, making them feel comfortable. You don't need language for that," she pointed out.

The new ENL positions required by New York cost Albany schools $1.7 million.  The district doesn't receive increased aid to keep up with the growing population and was forced to take money from other places.

Albany administrators did have to choose ENL positions over other positions but when asked, could not say specifically which jobs ENL replaced. They add that serving all students, regardless of where they come from, is their priority.

"We really view our rapidly growing refugee population as a great asset," noted Tom Giglio, ENL and Refugee Services for Albany Schools. "We view our changing landscape of the city as a real positive thing."

Meeting the social and emotional needs of children who have literally survived war is also imperative. At Hackett, there is a separate, private office where families new to the country can receive help and learn about the services available to them. It's staffed by two newly created positions.

"If kids aren't feeling good healthy and mentally, no matter how dynamic instructional piece is, they're not going to make it," warned Giglio.

Lenore Palladino at North Albany facilitated a craniotomy for a student who showed up at school with shrapnel in his head and worked to get a sixth grader from Afghanistan a prosthetic arm.

"A child's a child and when they're in need, they're in need," noted Palladino.

"These are the faces of refugees. These are the kids," pointed out Zontini. "It's not just somebody you see on the news. It's right here in your backyard."

Classroom accomplishments will always be commended. However, in Albany, helping the city's future citizens to heal mentally and physically is part of the job description too.

"They are so grateful to be in a safe place and a place of learning," noted Zontini. "It's inspirational. You see these kids come from such trauma yet they are so resilient."

The district is also considering a Newcomer Academy for immigrant and refugee students at an existing city school. According to district documents, it would cost $420,000 in its first year.

The Newcomer Academy, like all other programs, depends on state aid for next year.


Abigail Bleck

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