Lancaster school district wants to limit refugee enrollment order

    Phoenix Academy is the School District of Lancaster's accelerated credit program for students at risk for aging or dropping out before earning a high school diploma. The school district is responsible for supporting English Language Learners enrolled at Phoenix

    Phoenix Academy is the School District of Lancaster's accelerated credit program for students at risk for aging or dropping out before earning a high school diploma. The school district is responsible for supporting English Language Learners enrolled at Phoenix

    District was court-ordered to put students in a school program for English learners.

    Editor’s note: This post has been updated to reflect court documents filed Friday.

    District was court-ordered to put students in a school program for English learners.

    The school district of Lancaster was court-ordered recently to let refugees over the age of 16 into its International School program for students with limited English proficiency.

    But just a couple weeks later, the school’s attorneys are trying to get the order suspended. And the lawyers who initiated the case claim the district is already defying  the ruling.

    One is Vic Walczk, legal director of the Pennsylvania ACLU.

    “The school district is refusing to put them in a school, in a program designed for students just like them. It makes no sense,” Walczak says.

    The district’s position is that “the trial court’s order pertains only to students already enrolled when it was issued” a couple weeks ago, according to spokeswoman Kelly Burkholder.

    The order specifies 12 students: the six named as plaintiffs in the case and other “similarly situated” students at Phoenix. Broader questions, including whether the same reasoning would apply to future students with limited English proficiency over the age of 16, will be considered separately through proceedings scheduled to begin next week.

    But the judge also wrote that the district is “encouraged to fairly apply that reasoning to individuals” who enroll going forward and are “similarly situated.”

    Lancaster’s logic

    Thomas Specht, the lawyer handling the district’s appeal, hasn’t returned requests for comment this week.

    But district officials have stated they, not the courts, should decide where to place students. In this case, school personnel are bearing in mind differences in maturity between 13 and 14-year-olds entering high school and the “college-aged” students like those who brought the lawsuit, court documents state.

    Court filings also cite concerns about overcrowding at the International School if all new student refugees are sent there going forward, according to court documents filed this week.

    Lancaster, pop. 60,000, resettles between 500 and 700 refugees annually, which rivals resettlement activity in Philadelphia, Erie and other, bigger cities outside Pennsylvania. The federal government gives the Lancaster school district about $70,000 per year to defray the cost to educate the roughly 500 refugees who are students there.

    For them, a traditionally-paced curriculum might not work so well, district personnel have said, if they feel pressure to support their families or have started families of their own. Those are some of the factors often behind students (national origin notwithstanding) to end up dropping out or earning credits too slowly to graduate on time – and that can negatively affect the district’s graduation rate, school administrators  have testified.

    In recent years, refugees over the age of 16 have been sent to an accelerated credit program at the privately-run Phoenix Academy, a magnet school for students at risk for dropping or aging out before earning a diploma.

    Intent aside, the practices violate the Equal Education Opportunity Act, according to U.S. District Court Judge Edward Smith’s ruling issued Aug. 26.

    “He ruled what they’re doing to those six kids is wrong and to extent they are doing it to other kids, then it’s [wrong, too,]” Walczak says.

    Status quo?

    The ACLU and Philadelphia-based Education Law Center became aware of the issue from an employment counselor at Lutheran Children & Family Service’s Refugee Program, which has since turned over operations to Brethren Christian Services.

    Attorneys from those organizations and firms in Philadelphia and Harrisburg filed a lawsuit on behalf of several students this summer. Their request to attend the International School got expedited consideration due to the impending start of the school year.

    Of the 12, eight students are transferring. One quickly asked return to Phoenix because he prefers the smaller classes ther, according to the school’s executive director. Another told Keystone Crossroads he wants to stick with his plans to graduate from Phoenix in January and join the Marines. The others were unreachable and believed to have moved out of the district.

    New student refugees are “placed at Phoenix only if they are 17-21 years of age and have no or very limited credits upon enrollment,” Burkholder wrote in an email. “These decisions are made to ensure our students are successful and attain the necessary credits towards graduation.”

    The ACLU’s latest court filing includes emails from Lancaster’s enrollment office illustrating enrollment delays more than three times as long as the five days allowed by state law, despite persistence from resettlement caseworkers. 

    In one message thread, an administrator states the district is following the “status quo” for new students “until the appeal is heard” when a caseworker questions a student’s placement at Phoenix in light of the court ruling.

    Editor’s note: This post has been updated to reflect court documents filed Friday.

     

     

     

     

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