Lancaster schools settle lawsuit over refugee enrollment policies

     In this file image, an older student refugee from Tanzania completes a spelling exercise. (AP File Photo/Ed Zurga)

    In this file image, an older student refugee from Tanzania completes a spelling exercise. (AP File Photo/Ed Zurga)

    Lancaster school officials agreed Tuesday to staff increases, data monitoring and restitution and legal fee payments totaling more than $400,000 to resolve a case filed on behalf of refugee high school students.

    The suit alleged the school’s practices violated the Equal Education Opportunity Act. A federal judge agreed, as did an appellate panel.

    So what were the practices?

    The district had been sending refugees over the age of 16 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.

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    The six refugee students (and a few others who ultimately opted out of the case) wanted to go to the former International School program for first-year ESL students at the district’s mainstream McCaskey High School.

    A preliminary injunction issued last summer allowed the plaintiffs to choose which school to attend.

    The settlement provides that, going forward, all students with the lowest levels of English-level proficiency will start out at McCaskey’s International School, recently renamed the Newcomer Program. Once their English proficiency tests at the appropriate level, they’ll switch to mainstream classrooms to Phoenix or McCaskey (a decision made jointly with parents and the student).

    “The biggest difference is they’ll all come together in the beginning, which we’re not against,” said Superintendent Damaris Rau. “But we’re talking about maybe 25 kids who come to us as 17-to-21-year-old nonnative English speakers. [Fighting the lawsuit] was just taking up an inordinate amount of time.”

    District officials maintained they, not the courts, should decide where to place students. And that their enrollment decisions were made with students’ best interests in mind. In this particular case, that especially meant getting a high school diploma, although critics in court likened the results a diploma mill.

    “When you don’t even have a high school diploma, there really aren’t many jobs you will be able to get, period. You can’t raise a family working at McDonald’s,” Rau said. 

    Rau says she doesn’t think the settlement agreement will complicate the school’s discretion and efforts in getting students through school with a diploma.

    Rau, who’s in her second year, also has stressed throughout this process that during her first year on the job, she brought in a consultant to evaluate the district’s for English as a Second Language programming.

    “We wanted to improve anyway,” Rao said, adding that taxpayer dollars also were a consideration in the district’s decision to settle rather than continuing to fight.

    The students’ lawyers had racked up more than $2 million in expenses by the time the case went through court proceedings that resulted in two rulings against the district.

    And before, Lancaster’s insurance carrier capped coverage at $100,000.

    But this settlement requires the district to pay far less up front. As part of the settlement, Lancaster’s insurer agreed to cover about $300,000 for the students’ legal team from the ACLU, Pepper Hamilton’s Philadelphia office, Philly-based Education Law Center and the University of Pennsylvania. On top of that, another $70,000 will reimburse costs for expert witnesses and other expenses, according to the ACLU and district’s news release and solicitor.

    Additionally, about 30 former students will be eligible for between $1,000 and $3,000 each for post-secondary educational programs such as community college courses.

    “In terms of what kids are getting, it’s everything we wanted,” says ACLU of Pennsylvania’s legal director Vic Walczak. “There always could be more money for compensatory education and attorneys’ fees, but … this has been about making that program available for these older kids. It’s vital for them to have a chance at a brighter future and now that’s going to happen. So we are thrilled.”

    It’s unclear how much, exactly, it will cost to add four teachers to its program for first-year students with limited English proficiency.

    Between 500 and 700 refugees have been resettled in the 60,000-person city every year in the recent past, which is a higher per capita rate than pretty much anywhere else in the nation outside of Florida.

    Right now, about 550 refugees are students in the School District of Lancaster.

    The federal government provides about $70,000 annually to offset additional costs associated with providing services to students whose English proficiency is limited or nonexistent and are suffering the consequences of having to flee violence such as an interrupted education.

    The district was fighting the lawsuit, in part, out of concern about overcrowding if all new student refugees go to McCaskey, according to court filings.

    Multiple school officials said after the board meeting they’re glad the court battle is over.

    “This was a very lengthy production, you know, this whole court trial. We wanted to be able to take care of our students and avoid an even longer trial,” Rau says.

    Editor’s note: This post was updated to clarify settlement terms and correct SDOL Superintendent Damaris Rau’s start date.

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