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She has a 4.1 GPA. Why she and others could still be dropped from Modesto school

Syrian refugee student in Modesto talks about her future

Syrian refugee and Davis high school student Ayat Alfares is pictured on Tuesday April 24, 2018 at her Modesto home. Language Institute students who are turning 18 may be sent to adult school in a change in school district policy.
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Syrian refugee and Davis high school student Ayat Alfares is pictured on Tuesday April 24, 2018 at her Modesto home. Language Institute students who are turning 18 may be sent to adult school in a change in school district policy.

Maria Merza stopped going to school in Syria because of the threats and explosions that rocked the city where she lived.

When her family was resettled in Modesto, she was terrified about something else. She could not read or speak the language of her adopted country.

In just three years at Davis High School, Merza went from a zero score in English comprehension to reading at almost college level. She has a weighted grade point average of 4.1 and by other measures is an excellent student, her teachers say.

This month, her footpath to college ran into a wall. Merza is completing her third year at Davis High School, but because she is 19, she could soon be declared a dropout if Modesto City Schools decides that 19- to 21-year-olds can't stay in high school.

Other students graduating next month from Davis had the standard four years in high school. Merza has only had three years. If she is sent to adult school, she will lose her dream of attending a university.

Even though they have made similar progress, about 20 other English learner students at Davis are faced with the same fate -- no diploma or a four-year college education -- because they haven't been approved for a fourth year of high school.

Merza expressed her emotions in an opinion piece for the Modesto Bee.

"Instead of being rejected or displaced, we should be rewarded for our accomplishments, potential and successes," Merza wrote. "It is really hard to explain how filled with sorrow our hearts are right now."

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Maria Merza. Language Institute student at Davis High School in Modesto, Calif. Johana Shea/ Davis High School Photographer

These students attend an award-winning program at Davis called the Language Institute that has earned accolades for training refugee and immigrant students who barely know the alphabet and makes them proficient in English in two to four years.

Modesto City Schools has supported the program, but has gone back and forth on an enrollment policy that puts newcomer students in grade levels by age and allows a so-called "fifth-year senior" status for students who need more time to hone skills or become university eligible, though the term is a misnomer.

The option is often granted to Language Institute students who were first enrolled as sophomore or juniors, even though they should have been placed in ninth grade based on their education experience, the institute's director said.

Some students graduating this year are 19 or 20 years old, but it was evident the school district practice had flipped when two girls from Afghanistan were denied enrollment at Davis in March on assumptions they lacked credits to graduate at the traditional age of 18.

The district has since taken the stand that 18-year-olds not eligible for graduation need to attend adult school. Adult education does not make students eligible for admission to universities.

This month, about 20 students in the Language Institute were placed in limbo when their class choices for next year were marked "pending approval" by the district office, prompting many to speak out at the April 16 school board meeting.

The school district is working on an updated enrollment policy and has tentatively set a May 8 workshop from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. to discuss the age policy and enrollment requirements, adult education opportunities and fifth-year high school options for some students. No official board action is anticipated.

Other affected students are anxious while waiting for a decision from Modesto City Schools.

"All my friends are crying because of this problem," said Ayat Alfares, a newcomer from Syria who needs several classes in math, government and English to graduate and attend college. "I don't know what we are going to do. They told us at the end of the year. We could not do anything."

If the district were to bend the policy, Alfares would be a “super senior” next year, though it's not really a case of granting extra time to a disadvantaged student. It would be her fourth year at Davis. If the students had been told earlier the policy would change, they could have taken extra classes and gone to summer school to earn enough credits for graduation, said Alfares, who wants to become an engineer.

The students attending the Language Institute are from all over the school district and include resettled refugees from Syria, children of parents who assisted the military in Afghanistan, immigrants from Central America and kids from other regions of the world.

Many seem to have the fiber of people who succeed, riding bikes or walking miles to attend school.

According to the state Education Code, the young people have the same right to public education as other kids.

Through no choice of their own, refugee and immigrant students are placed in a grade level based on their age instead of educational experience. For example, a 17-year-old might be placed in 10th grade even if they missed the ninth grade while in a refugee center overseas.

Along with the language challenges, that student can't earn enough credits to graduate as a senior and need that fourth year everyone else gets to complete their graduation requirements, said Lindsey Bird, coordinator of the Language Institute.

Noting that denying students a diploma can result in a lower standard of living, grassroots supporters of the Language Institute propose the district allow enrollment until age 21 for completing graduation requirements.

Bird said that Title III of federal law states these students should have access to public education until 21. Part of the problem is a school district enrollment policy dating to 1983 that's not a fair playing field for today's immigrant and refugee teens, especially those with gaps in their formal education, advocates say.

Some of the 250 students in the Language Institute witnessed the traumas of war in their native countries.

Merza, who lost her mother several years ago, lived in northeastern Syria with three older brothers and their father. In 2012, the province loosely controlled by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was torn apart by battles between government troops, Kurdish forces, al-Qaeda and other factions, causing thousands of people to flee for safety.

The three brothers and their sister watched as troops entered the city and told residents to leave. "Some people were dying," Merza said.

Alfares said her family lived in Damascus when fighting erupted seven years ago. Her parents decided they should leave the country in 2011 after a group tried to force Ayat and her brother into military service, she said.

The family stayed in Istanbul for 3 1/2 years before coming to the U.S. in September 2015.

Modesto City Schools has not released any proposed changes to the policy and school board members have mostly referred questions to the district office.

Board member John Walker said the district's enrollment policy is out of date and state regulations are fuzzy on equity for immigrant students. He said the success stories of the Language Institute are amazing to him, but the issue of 19- and 20-year-old students on the same campus with younger teens needs to be addressed.

"Someone has to square that up for me," Walker said. The board member added the large school district has other challenges, such as low test scores in its elementary schools.

The high schools in Turlock have a fifth-year senior option for English learners who meet the criteria. School districts in Sacramento, where thousands of refugees have been resettled, turn away students who are 18 years and older and place refugee students based on their age and not academic experience, though exceptions have been made, said Angela Ferrara of World Relief Sacramento. San Juan Unified School District in Sacramento has fifth-year senior opportunities at some schools.

School districts in Southern California, New York and other states make accommodations for refugee English learners, including Cincinnati schools that give them until age 22 to graduate.

Bird said Modesto City Schools has passed on a number of opportunities of grant funding for education of English learners. She said another problem with the district's age-based enrollment policy is that it lowers the school's graduation rate reported to the state.

"When students do not graduate with their four-year cohort they report as 'drop outs'," Bird explained. If the Language Institute students who graduate in their "super senior" year are counted, Davis' rate of graduation is raised from 84 percent to 93 percent.

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Ayat Alfares, a student at Davis High School, studies at her Modesto home on Tuesday April 24, 2018. Language Institute students who are turning 18 may be sent to adult school in a change in school district policy that previously gave extra time in high school to refugee students. Joan Barnett Lee

An attorney from California Rural Legal Assistance sent an April 20 letter to the school district demanding a fourth year of high school for Merza. If she is approved for another year, Merza hopes to take advanced placement classes, biology and other required courses and possibly apply to University of California at Davis.

She wants to become a pediatric dentist.

Alaa Al Jawabra of Syria, who had to start as a junior at Davis and was declared a "dropout" last year, will attend the University of the Pacific, where she hopes to enter pharmacy school, on a scholarship. Her family was featured in a ABC News "Nightline" special report in 2016 on refugees adjusting to life in America.

"Refugees who fled violence, left everything behind, who have seen their homes destroyed and their relatives injured or killed, and whose education has been interrupted for months or even years, should absolutely have a chance to complete their education," Al Jawabra said in a statement on behalf of the students in limbo.