Decision days away in Lancaster refugee case

    Qasim Hassan (left) and Khadidja Issa (center) leave federal court in Easton after testifying against the School District of Lancaster.  Six student refugees are suing the district for allegedly denying them equitable education opportunities. Hassan's family fled Somalia after his father was killed in the civil war there. Issa's family fled Sudan and spent a decade in a refugee camp before being resettled in Lancaster. (Emily Previti/WITF)

    Qasim Hassan (left) and Khadidja Issa (center) leave federal court in Easton after testifying against the School District of Lancaster. Six student refugees are suing the district for allegedly denying them equitable education opportunities. Hassan's family fled Somalia after his father was killed in the civil war there. Issa's family fled Sudan and spent a decade in a refugee camp before being resettled in Lancaster. (Emily Previti/WITF)

    U.S. District Judge Edward Smith says he’ll rule before the school year starts next week.

    Five full days of testimony wrapped up Monday in the lawsuit against the School District of Lancaster.

    The case claims six student refugees were denied enrollment altogether or placed at Phoenix Academy, a magnet school with an accelerated credit program where they allegedly didn’t get adequate support learning English.

    They’re seeking admission to Lancaster’s mainstream McCaskey High School.

    McCaskey’s year-long International School program gives two hours of direct English language instruction every day to the least proficient students. They stay together as one class for other subjects taught in English.

    Students suing the district went to Phoenix Academy, where they got just 80 minutes of direct English instruction and were immersed with native speakers for other subjects.

    A bilingual expert testified Phoenix’s program is detrimental to students, like refugees, with limited English proficiency and an interrupted or nonexistent formal education history. Former Phoenix teacher Mary Ann Ortiz, the last witness in the case, says she thinks they’d be better off at McCaskey’s International School.

    Superintendent Damaris Rau defended placing students at Phoenix.

    “Maybe there were five kids in six years or so who’ve been unhappy and possibly more, but there were 10 times more kids who were very satisfied, who received additional services, who we prepared well enough to go to either work or the university, and I hope we don’t lose sight of that,” she said.

    Rau and other school officials say Phoenix’s small class sizes and condensed curriculum are best for refugees at risk for aging out of school before graduation. They say they’ve seen the traditionally-paced tract frustrate older students, some facing pressure to work to help support their family, to the point they drop out without a diploma.

    But the legal question is whether they’ve been denied educational opportunities.

    This lawsuit follows similar cases out of Florida and New York amid an expected rise in refugee resettlement, already relatively high in Lancaster at between 500 and 700 people resettled annually in the 60,000-person city.

    Rau says regardless of the lawsuit’s outcome, she has some investigating to do during the second year on the job.

    She says she’s also going to look into the months-long wait for some students to start classes. State law permits a lag of no more than five days.

    The students are being represented by a team including attorneys from the Education Law Center and American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.

    The organizations got involved in the case after hearing about problems refugees in their older teens faced at school from resettlement agency Lutheran Christian & Family Services. Christian Brethren Services has since taken over the LCFS office in Lancaster.

    LCFS first realized student refugees were having issues after one young man stopped going to school, causing their families to temporarily lose cash assistance.

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