Somali students take complaints to Statehouse

Claudine Nkurinziza, far right, addresses race issues in Burlington schools with members of the House Education Committee.  Photo by Taylor Dobbs

Claudine Nkurinziza, far right, addresses race issues in Burlington schools with members of the House Education Committee. Photo by Taylor Dobbs

After protesting at Burlington High School last Thursday, a group of students took their complaints to the Statehouse on Thursday, joined by a contingent from Winooski High School. They met with the House Education Committee to air their grievances.

The students described a culture of discrimination at BHS, where English Language Learning (ELL) students – largely Somali and Nepalese – are outcasts among their peers.

Students said there is a lack of diversity both in the material taught at the schools and the teachers presenting it. They said there is no black history class, for example.

“I know how the United States developed … but I know nothing about some black people who did good history. Sometimes they say ‘Malcolm X,’ and I don’t even know that guy,” said Fama, a Burlington High School student, at the meeting.

“I’m really surprised there’s no course in black history at Burlington High School,” said committee chair Johannah Donovan. Donovan and other committee members said they felt the system had failed the students.

The students also said ELL classes are segregated in one school building separate from other classes held elsewhere on the BHS campus. This lack of integration, students said, doesn’t give ELL students a chance to utilize the language they’re learning in a social setting. They also said the ELL classes failed to adequately teach them English. In a list of demands the group brought to the meeting, they said they are “given the same materials every year; there is no progress.”

Burlington school administrators have been looking into the issue. In October 2010, the Burlington School Board authorized a Task Force on Diversity and Equity to assemble a report on the state of diversity and equity in Burlington’s schools and provide recommendations for a “strategic plan for diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

The task force’s report, released in October 2011 calls for some of the same things the students demanded at the Statehouse, including “a multicultural mindset,” and “hiring staff of color and culturally competent staff.”

The task force report consists of a list of recommendations. The Diversity and Equity Committee is in the process of formulating the district’s strategic plan based on those recommendations.

The committee is scheduled to present the proposed plan in October 2012.

Taylor Dobbs

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  • Steven Farnham

    On January 11, 2000, in Florence, South Carolina, a certain former President famously asked, “Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?”

    I would say, “No. I guess not. Certainly some of our Presidents aren’t.” Given some of the utterances from a recent vice-presidential candidate from Alaska, I’d say they “isn’t” learning history either.

    There may well be adequate grounds for action of some sort to improve the curriculum at BHS or WHS. But to claim that ESL classes’ failure “…to adequately teach [the Somali and Nepalese] English” should be construed as discrimination is a tall order. If you have been paying attention, you may have observed that American schools don’t teach English to American kids either.

    In his lament “Why Can’t The English” (teach their children how to speak), Henry Higgins said, “There even are places where English completely disappears… Why in America, they haven’t spoken it in years.”

    So it would seem. Discrimination indeed.

  • Mr. Farnham
    While it is obviously true that many American schools are not succeeding, it is not obviously true that BHS is failing to teach English to Americans. In any event, I think we can safely say that any failure to teach native Americans good formal English is not an excuse to teach Somalis, Nepalis or any one else inadequately. Whether it is only the students of foreign origin who are inadequately instructed, or all students, I don’t think that a poor education for all can be construed as equality, or non-discriminatory. Sorry, as smart as you are and as well as you speak, your logic has many gaps and proves nothing.

    • Steven Farnham

      I disagree. A poor education for all can be construed as equality, and non-discriminatory, and often is. Mind you I think such is extraordinarily dim-witted policy, but it seemed to dominate educational philosophy where and when I attended public school, and from all the gnashing of teeth over the subject, my guess is that such is still prevalent in many schools.

      We are a nation which constantly places greater emphasis and resources in the military and the prison system than we do in education, and it shows. It may be extraordinarily stupid policy, but it is not necessarily discriminatory. I say this mindful of the fact that, every day, some teachers achieve the impossible in an impossible environment.

      Not so, my high school history teacher, who didn’t even try. She dismissed Malcolm X as a rabble-rouser and a troublemaker, and moved on. When I subsequently heard some recordings of Malcom X’s talks, I learned differently, and felt betrayed by the system that taught me such whitewashed nonsense. I felt robbed of a certain richness that ought to be the heritage of every young American.

      I felt that betrayal despite the fact that I’m not coloured⎯I’m as WASP as they get. (Though I make no claim to the “P” in “WASP.” I would sooner characterize myself as “WASA” (White Anglo Saxon Agnostic). Alas, I digress…

      Malcolm X had plenty to say to benefit people of all races (if one has an ear with which to listen), and I would argue that leaving that out of my education hurt me as much as it hurts a black pupil. Disagree if you must, but my point is that while it may be obtuse of our education system to sanitize it’s history books and courses of any of the Women and Blacks who figured so prominently in our nation’s development, I fail to see it as discriminatory, if all comers are taught the same Wonderbread Fluff.

      What I think is more likely is that foreign students are accustomed to a certain standard, and are aghast at what passes for education here in this country. If that is the case, I couldn’t agree with them more. But it still doesn’t mean it’s discrimination.

      And by the way, I wasn’t trying to fill gaps or prove anything⎯I’ll leave that to greater academics than me. What I’ve submitted here is my opinion. Don’t read too much into it.

  • Karl Riemer

    Really, what was that? Quoting fictional and phantasmagoric characters to demonstrate that absent perfection progress is illusory, or that Vermont can only aspire to standards set by individuals from Texas and Alaska, doesn’t contribution to a serious discussion.

    What do BHS administrators say?
    and, serious question, when do ELL students want integration into classes where english flies thick and fast, where cultural references and educational presuppositions inform every utterance? I assume integration is everybody’s goal, the question is how soon and how quickly. Language isn’t a prejudice, it’s a prerequisite. (Having attended school where I understood few words and no sentences, where even people’s best efforts at translation were only bewildering, I can testify that without a toehold to start, without a huge reduction in speed and complexity, a foreign language does not become less foreign.)

    • Steven Farnham

      Phantasmagoric? Hmmm. Let me provide a roadmap:

      After reading the main article above, I chose one point to address, disregarding, agreeing with, or having no comment about the rest of the article. My comment was directed solely at the allegations of discrimination against the Somali and Nepalese students at BHS, and could be concisely summarized thus:

      “Maybe, but you’d be hard pressed to convince me of it.”

      In other words, I doubt the veracity of that aspect of the report. Period. Worded a bit irreverently, as is my wont, but nothing more than an expression of scepticism.

      I would guess from Mr. Marshall’s words (above) that he took considerable umbrage at what I wrote. Again, I chose one (of Mr. Marshall’s) points to discuss, agreeing with or disregarding the balance of his argument(s).

      Initially, I was inclined to give a pass to Mr. Marshall’s comment, “…I don’t think that a poor education for all can be construed as equality, or non-discriminatory,” when it struck me that in my experience, a poor education for all had, indeed, been construed (or at least passed off) as equality, and/or non-discriminatory.

      I tied in the account quoted by one of the student’s in the article with a nearly identical experience of my own to illustrate my point, which can be summarized thus:

      “Sensing that my “poor education” experience (that of non-minority student) closely matches that of [minority students’] alleged experience, I detect no discrimination, and thus believe my earlier point has been reinforced, and Mr Marshalls apprehensions proven false.”

      I wish to emphasize that, in my opinion, poor education for all is NOT a particularly sensible approach to striving for equal opportunity to education, but it cannot be discrimination just because one of those receiving such equal treatment is from a minority or protected class.

      Sorry those two points proved so elusive to you⎯I didn’t think I disguised them that much. Nevertheless, I decline to accept your characterizing it as “phantasmagoric.”

      I would further suggest that the very existence of an ELL program utterly contradicts any implication of discriminating against those with language barriers, because ELL’s very reason for existence is to help them to “integrate into classes where [E]nglish flies thick and fast.”

      I could be wrong. Perhaps the goal of the instructor of this particular ELL program is sabotage, as illustrated in this little vignette from Monty Python:

      But that would bring us back to where we started:

      “Maybe, but you’d be hard pressed to convince me of it.”

      How’s that for phantasmagoric?

  • Jean O’Sullivan

    The students were my guests as a state representative to the State House. I wanted to clarify the issue if integration. The ELL students attend BHS almost exclusively in one building. The students are asking for physical integration into the school vis a vis classrooms. Integration of classes not language dominant, ie, physical education, arts, technical education. Also, a more active recruitment and accommodation (sports headscarves for instance) in sports and extracurricular actiitives would go a long way toward fully integrating the student body so that all cultures can learn from each other. Many of these students are multilingual from their interactions and not academics. Why not build upon this pre-existing skill set?

  • Mike Grover

    The fact that these individuals are even given audience to voice their qualms attests to the lack of discrimination. Although it is interesting that BHS (BS?) has no black history month, years and years ago my god awful elementary school WRVS in Orange County even celebrated black history month.

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