Plucked From Africa, but Still Isolated in Their Classes
New York Times
December 28, 2005
By MICHAEL WINERIP
IDIRIS MAOW, 14, an eighth grader at Forest Park Middle School, is a refugee
from Somalia <http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/international/countriesandterritories/so
malia/index.html?inline=nyt-geo> who arrived here with his family in 2003.
He is in his second year in an English language immersion class, yet can barely
speak or understand English and cannot read it. Asked in English how long he had
been at Forest Park, he could not answer.
His teacher, Andrew Soucie, works hard with Idiris, but without a Somali
translator to clarify lessons, he said, there is little progress. "It's a
disaster," Mr. Soucie said. "Idiris should be getting clarification every day in
his native tongue. I try to help him, but we can't communicate, and I'm never
sure what he's thinking." Mr. Soucie said he asked his supervisors for
translation help but "can't get a straight answer."
"If Idiris were my child, I'd be furious," Mr. Soucie said.
Somalian refugee families were brought to Massachusetts <http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/national/usstatesterritoriesandpossessio
ns/massachusetts/index.html?inline=nyt-geo> in recent years sponsored by local
There are 90 Somalian children in the public schools here, but they are spread
among 21 schools. Many, like Idiris, are the only Somalis at their schools.
While their mostly Hispanic classmates have many teachers who are bilingual and
can clarify lessons in Spanish, the Somalis have received little or no classroom
translation help during their two years here. Several interviewed at their homes
one recent evening through a translator hired by this writer appeared to be as
lost as Idiris.
Abdikadir Kabir, a fourth grader at Lincoln Elementary, could say the English
letters for the words "for" and "horse" but did not know how to sound out the
words. He said he was embarrassed, since he was the only one in his class who
could not read. Adey, his older sister, in the ninth grade at the High School of
Science and Technology, has a 1,066-page global history book and cannot read a
word of it. For a take-home quiz on the Reformation, she guessed the answers.
Her responses to the short essay questions were a nonsensical mix of English,
Spanish and gibberish.
Muslimo Sharif, the only Somali in an English immersion class full of Hispanics
at Duggan Middle School, said her teacher instructed in English and clarified in
Spanish. Muslimo said that she was the only one who could not read and that when
asked to do the first problem in the first lesson in her math book, she could
Indeed, several Somalian parents worry that their children are learning more
Spanish than English. Ali Abdullahi, a third grader at Kensington, had one
school book at home - a math workbook in Spanish.
Until a few years ago, Springfield would have been required by the state to
provide transitional instruction in these students' native Somali language.
But in 2002, Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley businessman, took his English-only
campaign to Massachusetts and got a referendum put on the ballot that banned
bilingual education. As a result, while current state education rules
"recommend" that schools have instructors to provide daily clarification in a
new student's native language, it is not required.
Springfield, which is near bankruptcy and is being run by a state-appointed
control board, was sharply criticized in a Massachusetts Department of Education
audit in February for "seriously deteriorated levels of compliance" in English
The district has hired two Somalian translators for 12 hours a week each to help
the 90 children. But because the 21 schools are so spread out and the two
translators rely on public buses that can take as long as two hours between
schools, some students are visited only once a month. One of the translators,
Sudi Maow (no relation to Idiris), said so much time was wasted traveling, "I'm
only spending an hour or two at the school, and half that time is the teachers
explaining the problems to me."
"I don't feel it's right," she said. "Because the kids don't understand, they
become discipline problems. They're lost, sitting in classes off to the side,
In an e-mail response, a spokeswoman for the Springfield schools, Mary Beach,
said that administrators had tried to hire more translators but that they were
hard to find. She said the two translators worked only 12 hours because "one had
a part-time job and the other one is a full-time college student."
However, in interviews, both translators said they were eager to work more
hours. Siat Bulle, the second translator, said he was available 40 hours a week.
For two years, local advocates for the Somalis - including Dr. A. B.
Odutola, Doreen Fadus and Jean Caldwell - have repeatedly asked that the
children be clustered in a few schools to maximize translation support and
reduce travel time for translators.
Springfield officials have given a variety of reasons for not doing so. Last
spring, according to Mrs. Caldwell, school officials said that clustering too
many Somalis at one school would bring down its scores on state tests and the
school could be labeled failing under the federal No Child Left Behind law. Mrs.
Caldwell, a retiree who does volunteer work for several Somalian families, has
filed a complaint with the federal Office of Civil Rights.
Dr. Beach would not comment on questions about the federal law. She said,
however, that the 26,000 children in the district were reassigned to their
neighborhood schools in the fall to save money on busing, and that since Somalis
live throughout the city, their schools are scattered.
IF that is so, it is hard to explain what happened to the four Kabir children.
Hassan, a first grader, is assigned to Boland Elementary, while Abdikadir, a
fourth grader, is assigned to Lincoln Elementary. Adey, a ninth grader, is
assigned to the High School of Science, while her brother Warsame, a junior, is
assigned to Commerce High.
Asked about this, Dr. Beard said she could not discuss specific cases.
Sylvia Smith, a state Education Department spokeswoman, said auditors would
return next month to review the city's English language program, including the
treatment of Somalis. "We're aware of these issues," she said. "We'll be looking
at these things."
Mary Janeczek, the cochairwoman of the education department at nearby Elms
College, has trained many of the city's English language teachers and is a
former Education Department administrator. She believes Springfield is violating
the law. "If they're giving clarification in Spanish, they should be giving
clarification in Somali, too; it's a question of fairness," she said.
Since coming here two years ago thanks to the sponsorship of Jewish Family
Services of Western Massachusetts, the Somalis have struggled. Mr. Soucie, the
teacher, said, "We're blatantly out of compliance, the way we're treating these
"We need translation help," he said. "I need to know what Idiris is thinking."
Through a translator, Idiris said he was thinking how lucky he is to be in
America after 10 years in refugee camps. But he said he was also thinking that
he expected the schools to be better in America and he is thinking how hard it
will be in America without English.