Faced with allegations of restricting access to education for refugee students, Modesto City Schools has proposed changes to its enrollment policies.
Advocates for the students doubted the rule changes, proposed at a workshop Tuesday, are enough to accommodate the educational needs of refugees who fall behind on their education during the resettlement process and arrive here with limited English.
Board member Chad Brown called for policies that specifically address the issues of refugee and immigrant students. Board members Adolfo Lopez and Charlene West also wanted to see solutions for the newcomers.
About 20 students of the Language Institute at Davis High School are awaiting a decision on whether they can return to high school in the fall or will be referred to adult school.
Those students from Afghanistan, Syria and other countries are trying to finish high school after they were enrolled in grade levels at Davis by age, instead of basing the decision on education experience. Those students are now aging out of high school and are simply asking for a fourth year at Davis that would prepare them for college admission, said teachers at the Language Institute, an accelerated English program for newcomer students.
The policies proposed at Tuesday's workshop would not change a practice of assigning refugee students to grade levels by age, even if they missed school during a resettlement process that can take two to three years.
It wasn't clear how many of the students would be helped by a "Fifth Year" senior status policy proposed Tuesday. Students would be ineligible if they would turn 20 during the extra year.
Amelia Herrera, a teacher and counselor at the Language Institute, told board members the policies need to be crafted for the newcomer student population, which is always changing. In more recent years, the institute created in 2009 has received more students from Middle Eastern countries and that could change in future years, she said.
Advocates for the newcomers have charged that a 1983 enrollment policy is too rigid to provide equity for refugee students. Some have proposed that refugees be allowed to attend high school until they are 21, which is allowed under federal law and has been the subject of lawsuits in other states.
Toni Litke, a physical education director at Davis, made a case for not allowing the older age group, saying a fully developed 21-year-old man could injure a 14-year-old in a physical education activity. She also was concerned about 21-year-old men mixing with 14- and 15-year-old girls on campus.
Halima Rahimi, a diminutive Afghan student who needs an extra year, stood at the podium and said she would not be a threat to a younger teen in a physical contest, getting a laugh from the audience.
In another proposed policy, an 18-year-old person who is new to the district would be denied enrollment and referred to adult education if he or she lacks credits to graduate that year. An 18-year-old able to complete graduation requirements on time would be enrolled.
Modesto City Schools has sometimes — and sometimes not — granted another year of high school or "super senior" status for international students who are 18 years old and need to complete graduation requirements. The 20 students at Davis were placed in limbo last month when their class choices for next year were marked "pending approval", advocates said.
A proposed policy would make "Fifth Year" senior status available to 18- and 19-year-old students who won't turn 20 during the extra year.
“Of course, it is going to affect a lot of students,” said Ayat Alfares, an 18-year-old Davis student from Syria who hopes to be a "super senior" next school year. “I have a friend who could not be a super senior because she is 19 this year and will be 20 next year.”
A speaker at Tuesday's workshop said the district has no policies for accommodating a 17-year-old immigrant who arrives with no previous formal education or English skills.
Marla Mack, associate superintendent of educational services for Modesto City Schools, said the district is updating policies for enrollment and giving extra time for earning a diploma if high schoolers have compelling reasons for a petition.
She said the district has allowed fifth-year status for many students across the district, but is now firming up the policy.
Mack said adult school options proposed Tuesday would support newcomer students who age out of high school and allow them to continue their education beyond 21.
An enhanced adult school program at Pearson School near the district office would include morning classes five days a week. The morning classes would include English language development, academic counseling and career guidance. Evening classes Monday through Thursday would include multiple-subject courses for getting a diploma and online classes making students eligible for four-year college admission.
The school board could formally approve the enrollment policy changes at meetings June 5 and June 25.