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Afghan girls rejected again by Modesto City Schools. Is case headed for courtroom?

Recent immigrants at the Davis High School Language Institute in Modesto pose for a selfie in May.
Recent immigrants at the Davis High School Language Institute in Modesto pose for a selfie in May. Lindsey Bird

Modesto City Schools again refused to enroll two Afghan girls at Davis High School, a decision that could lead to legal action by a group representing the students.

California Rural Legal Assistance said in a letter Monday the school district was obligated to provide public education to Morsal and Nargis Amini and demanded their enrollment at Davis.

The district responded Wednesday that they won't be enrolled. The sisters, said to be in tears, are checking out an adult school program with the Stanislaus County Office of Education. The CRLA said it's exploring legal remedies for the students.

The Amini family — a mom, two girls and their two brothers — fled Afghanistan and resettled in Turlock in 2016. The sisters, who are 17 and 18 years old, respectively, attended Turlock's Pitman High School from April 2016 to February of this year.

Their education came to a halt when the family moved to Modesto last month and the girls tried to enroll in the Language Institute, an accelerated program at Davis for English learners, so they can improve their English skills and take science classes on the college prep track.

The Modesto school district has not explained why it won't enroll the sisters at Davis. It has said that 18-year-old students who lack credits to graduate should enroll in adult education to earn a diploma.

"They are relying on board policy that says if students are enrolling at age 18, they are referring the students to adult education," said Jessica Jewell, regional director of advocacy for CRLA.

California law says students up to 18 years old are entitled to public education. It is a fundamental civil right regardless of citizenship or immigration status.

Jewell's letter said the sisters were successfully attending school in Turlock and Morsal was on track to graduate. Like many refugees from the Middle East, their birth dates on immigration documents are Jan 1, making it appear they are 18 and 19. Refugee groups say that is often done in haste by immigration officials, who otherwise would need to translate a birthday on the Afghan calendar to the calendar used in the United States.

According to state law, school districts in California, which are in charge of verifying age and residency of students, may rely on information such as baptismal records or an affidavit from a parent to determine age.

The CRLA letter claims the school district may be discriminating against the Afghan students and other 18-year-olds who've been denied enrollment to the Language Institute, in light of state legislation protecting the rights of immigrants. State law obligates the school district to "afford all persons equal rights and opportunities" at its schools, regardless of their race or ethnicity or immigration status, the letter says.

The district receives Title III funds for immigrant students that aim to ensure they learn English and have education services that meet their needs.

The district policy of summarily denying enrollment of students based on their age "is disproportionately impacting immigrant students, the very students that Title III funds are intended to benefit and protect." That kind of language from an attorney usually suggests the issue could be headed for court.

The district office did not have a response to questions posed by The Modesto Bee on Thursday.

School Board President Amy Neumann said last week the board will hold a workshop on those issues in late spring. An ongoing issue has been whether students should be enrolled in the Language Institute until they're 21. It's allowed under Title III of the Education Code, but Modesto City Schools has not adopted the policy.

In the past, Davis High has approved exceptions for some students older than 18..

School Board Member Chad Brown said Thursday he wants to explore a possible change in the policy. “I want to have a study session where we can hear all sides,” Brown said. “I have said that in the board room numerous times.”

Scott Kuykendall, assistant superintendent of the county Office of Education, said that Morsal and Nargis, who speak Farsi, will attend an orientation Friday on SCOE's adult learning program, which has two English-as-a-second-language teachers fluent in English and Spanish.

The students already have missed three weeks of school.

He assured the teachers are able to teach Farsi speakers to read, write and speak in English. The Afghan students won’t be able to springboard from high school graduation to a four-year college through the SCOE program, because its online science and fine arts classes are not approved by universities, he said.

Kuykendall said a program like the Language Institute is ideal for immersing students in the culture and language. “That is the best and fastest way to learn the language,” he said.

Officials said there is consistent demand for adult language training classes in the Modesto area, where immigrants from Central America and an increasing number of refugees from the Middle East converge.

Karen Williams, executive director of the Stanislaus Literacy Center, said local school districts have numerous programs for adults to learn English but fewer programs for students younger than 18.

“We have a huge waiting list for our adult classes,” Williams said. “We can’t serve all the people who come to us."

Turlock Mayor Gary Soiseth has followed the story of the two former Pitman students. As part of his mayoral duties, he attended a Turlock High event Thursday where refugee and immigrant students showed off their English skills and shared stories and food from their home country.

The activity featured music and dance from Mexico, Peru, Syria and Afghanistan.

“Turlock has done this correctly and I would encourage surrounding school districts to take a look at our ability to incorporate these students into our community,” he said.