Court: Older refugee students can choose regular high school

PHILADELPHIA (AP) " A U.S. appeals court will allow older refugee students in a Pennsylvania school district to choose the mainstream high school over an alternative school, wading into an issue erupting across the country.

Several school districts, including Utica and Buffalo, New York, have faced similar lawsuits over how to educate 17- to 21-year-olds with little formal schooling in any language.

In the Pennsylvania case, Lancaster school officials say they welcome refugees but need the flexibility to place students where they see fit. They say older students have a better chance of earning a diploma by age 21 at the district's alternative school, Phoenix Academy, where each course lasts just a semester.

But the ACLU calls the program "a dead end" compared to McCaskey High School's international program, which serves refugees and immigrants under 17 when they enroll.

A federal judge heard five days of evidence last summer before issuing a temporary ruling for the ACLU.

The appeals court ruling Monday upheld that decision, allowing the ACLU's six plaintiffs to choose which school to attend until a trial on the issue this summer, when the ACLU will seek a broader, class-action ruling.

Circuit Judge D. Michael Fisher said the plaintiffs had "demonstrated a reasonable probability that Phoenix's programs are unsound for them and fail to actually overcome their language barriers." But, he added, the school district should be given the chance to come up with a plan acceptable to the courts.

At least one appellate judge during arguments had questioned whether a Phoenix Academy diploma had much value if students, as some testified, did not know enough English to understand their classes.

The plaintiffs included a 19-year-old who fled Sudan when she was 5, speaks Fur and Arabic, and attended school only at a refugee camp in Chad; an 18-year-old who fled to Egypt from Somalia at age 12 and arrived in the U.S. knowing only a few words of English; and two sisters, 18 and 20, who left Myanmar when their father was forced into labor there. Their native language is Hakha Chin.

Lancaster Superintendent Damaris Rau expressed disappointment Thursday with the ruling. McCaskey has 172 refugees among its 2,800 students, she said. District-wide, about 17 percent of the 11,000 students are English language learners and nearly 5 percent are refugees.

"We have gone above and beyond most other places in welcoming refugees. ... That's why it's so demoralizing," she told The Associated Press. "This lawsuit really is not about refugees, it's about school districts having local control over placement decisions."

The case has cost the district $144,000 in legal fees so far.

Phoenix Academy enrolls 320 students who have fallen behind their peers and can quickly make up credits to graduate by age 21, when students lose their eligibility to attend public high school. About 20 of them are refugees. Students at the school, which is run by a contractor, are not permitted to carry books or food in or out each day. The ACLU said the program was far less rigorous than McCaskey.

"The building down the road can teach these kids effectively, while Phoenix is an educational dead end," said Witold "Vic" Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, who argued the case.

This story has been automatically published from the Associated Press wire which uses US spellings

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