A US appeals court must decide if older immigrant and refugee students steered to an alternative high school in Pennsylvania are getting a meaningful education or are simply being passed through the system. Civil rights lawyers argued Monday that the Lancaster School District is sending immigrant students who are 17 to 21 years old and can’t speak English to an alternative school with fewer academic opportunities.
The Lancaster School District said its concentrated program for English language learners allows them to earn degrees more quickly, and prevents the older students from getting frustrated and dropping out. US Circuit Judge Cheryl Krause, however, questioned whether the degrees have any meaning if the students don’t master core academic subjects.
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Lancaster has seen an influx of refugees and immigrants, in part through resettlement programs. About 17 percent of the district’s 11,000 students are English language learners and nearly 5 percent are refugees. The main high school also has a program for international students that includes English as a Second Language. A district judge, after hearing five days of evidence at trial, had ordered the district to let the students involved in the suit decide which school they want attend.
However, his August ruling did not cover other students.
Plaintiffs experts had said there was no evidence the students benefited from an alternative program that combines both English immersion and an accelerated pace. The students, who come from Somalia, Sudan and other war-torn countries, testified at the trial through translators.
“We’re talking about a vulnerable group of kids. These are kids who didn’t win the lottery in life,” lawyer Witold “Vic” Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, argued on their behalf Monday.
Lawyer Thomas Specht, representing the district, said the 80-minute block classes at the alternative school, Phoenix Academy, offered more intensive instruction but was not necessarily faster paced. The school is run by a contractor, Camelot Education, and has a policy of not letting students bring books and other items to and from school.
The district allows immigrant students under 17 to enroll at McCaskey High School. District officials were concerned about young teenagers at the high school mixing with students as old as 20 or 21, Specht said. Phoenix Academy enrolls students in grades 7 through 12 who have fallen behind their peers. The middle school program is on a separate floor. The programs are designed to allow students to make up credits at an accelerated pace, Specht said.
Similar lawsuits have been filed in New York state and Florida. The three-judge panel did not indicate when it would rule.