One of the two Afghan refugee students who were denied enrollment at Davis High School in Modesto was allowed to enroll Tuesday after lawyers intervened.
Morsal Amini was assessed for English language skills at the high school, giving a writing sample that said: "I feel myself lucky to live in a country that give me the opportunity to go to school and follow my goals."
Morsal Amini will attend classes at the Language Institute, an English immersion program at Davis for students from 30 different countries.
Last month, an age-based policy prevented Amini and her sister, Nargis, from attending Davis. Nargis is taking classes in the Stanislaus County Office of Education adult school as attorneys representing the family work on getting her accepted at Davis.
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Morsal and her sister are refugees who fled Afghanistan with their mother and two brothers and were resettled in Turlock in 2016. The girls attended Pitman High School, where Morsal was classified as a junior.
When the family moved into a larger, less expensive apartment in Modesto in February, they thought arrangements had been made for Nargis and Morsal to attend the Language Institute at Davis. The high school denied enrollment based on policy that older high schoolers, who lack credits to graduate on time, should attend adult school or another program to earn a general education degree.
California Rural Legal Assistance and immigration advocates urged the school district to reconsider the decision last month, saying the students were being denied the right to public education. On Monday, Modesto City Schools changed its decision for Morsal based on a notarized affidavit confirming that she is 17 years old.
In a statement, Modesto City Schools suggested the decision to enroll Morsal was based on new information about her ability to graduate on time.
“With any potential student, as new information regarding age and academic progress, or other information becomes available, we take that into consideration when deciding how we can best assist students in earning their high school diploma,” the district's statement read.
Morsal will attend the Language Institute to improve her reading comprehension in English and her writing and speech skills. She wants to take physics, chemistry and other mainstream classes to prepare her for college. She has ambitions of becoming a nurse or dentist.
Part of the holdup for the Amini sisters was an ongoing debate over the school district's age-based policy. Modesto City Schools has concerns about 19- and 20-year-old students sharing a high school campus with younger teens. In an upcoming workshop, the school board will discuss the possibility of students attending the Language Institute until age 21.
Another hangup for the Afghan students were the Jan. 1 birthdates on their visa documents, which suggested that Nargis was 19 and Morsal was 18.
Because the Islamic lunar and Iranian calenders used in Afghanistan don't line up with the U.S. calendar, it's common for immigration officials to give Afghan refugees a Jan. 1 birthday.
Lyndsey Bird, coordinator of the Language Institute program, said notarized affidavits have been used in the past to verify the true birthdates of students from Afghanistan. Family members say that Nargis is 18 years old. No other details on her status were available Tuesday.
Morsal and Nargis had the rare opportunity of attending school in Afghanistan. School attendance among girls was estimated at 3 percent before the Taliban were driven from the country, and it has gradually increased to almost 40 percent.
Refugees arriving in the United States need to learn the Roman alphabet in a first step to acquiring a new language. The Amini sisters want to complete their secondary education in Modesto and attend college.
“Her writing and speaking ability are strong for an English learner only in the country for two years,” Bird said of Morsal. Her approximate reading comprehension in English is fourth-grade level, which is impressive for a newcomer whose native language uses a different alphabet.
She hopes to make large strides on reading comprehension before turning 18 in December. “If she is able to return (to Davis) next year, I believe she won’t just graduate — she can graduate college ready,” Bird said.
Morsal wrote that the majority of girls in Afghanistan can't attend school and their destinies are determined by men. "Girls and women just do the housework such as washing clothes, (doing) the dishes and training the children. I am different. I want to choose my goals by my own self," Morsal wrote.