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
4 years 7 months ago
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… Read more »
4 years 7 months ago
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… Read more »
Steven Farnham
4 years 7 months ago
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… Read more »
Karl Riemer
4 years 7 months ago
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… Read more »
Steven Farnham
4 years 7 months ago
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… Read more »
Jean O'Sullivan
4 years 7 months ago
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… Read more »
Mike Grover
4 years 7 months ago

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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