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Buffalo School District suffers bilingual breakdown

   Nicole Marrero, a 15-year-old student at Buffalo's alternative school, says she has spent two full school years in an educational fog.

   Nicole, who moved here from Puerto Rico in 2002, says she knows very little English and cannot follow English-language lessons, either verbal or written.

   Nicole previously took part in bilingual education programs at two city elementary schools.  But since being assigned to Academy School 44 for a high-rate absenteeism at her previous school, all her classes have been in English. She does spend an hour with an English as a second language teacher, but that teacher does not speak Spanish. Nicole said she doesn't understand what is being said in class, and remains in seventh grade, even though she is old enough be in the 10th grade.

    "I'm lost," she said through a Spanish-language interpreter. "I don't know what to do. I don't feel good because I don't learn anything."

     Gregory Mott, her principal, said he has had conversations in English with Nicole, and feels her English skills are appropriate for her age. But Mott and three other city school officials -- citing student privacy restrictions … refuse to answer questions about whether Nicole can function adequately in an English-language classroom.

    West District Board of Education Member Ralph Hernandez says Nicole is supposed to receive bilingual services.

    "It's a total failure on the part of the district," he said. "We have, without a doubt, violated these kids' civil rights."

      Nicole's situation is not an isolated case, said Lourdes Iglesias, executive director of Hispanics United of Buffalo.

    "We see things like this all the time," she said. "What they are doing to this child is educational neglect at its worst."

-- Peter Simon

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