After living as refugees in Pakistan, Khuda and Fatima Musa-Khan dreamed of an education in the United States and finally were granted the opportunity.
When the family was resettled in Modesto in November 2015, Fatima was illiterate in her own language and started with the basics of writing. She was taught to hold a pen and make an “X” in place of her name.
Fatima and her brother, Khuda, made good progress on their education in less than three years at Davis High School’s Language Institute, but received notice last month they were not approved for another year, putting their family’s future in doubt. Fatima, 19, and her 18-year-old brother are presumably too old to continue in the program or lack credits to graduate on time.
Refugee and immigrant students at various levels of education are at the heart of a debate over enrollment policy in Modesto City Schools that returns to the district board Monday evening.
People who support their cause say the district should relax its age-based policies to accommodate the vulnerable young people, who have arrived in larger numbers in recent years.
Since October 2014, almost 2,000 refugees of all ages, most from Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, have resettled in Stanislaus County, though the influx has slowed down under the Trump administration. Students from more than 30 countries are served by the Language Institute at Davis, created in 2009 to provide robust language training and prepare newcomer students for success.
Refugee agencies such as World Relief rely on the Language Institute to educate the high schoolers at Davis and younger adolescents at Roosevelt Junior High. The expense for supplemental services, support staff and counselors for students who may have suffered trauma in violent conflicts costs about $1.3 million a year above the base financial support, the school district said Friday.
Investments in education can be measured against the costs of academic failure. A single high school dropout costs society almost $300,000 over a lifetime, in terms of lower tax revenue and costs of public services, according to a Northeastern University study. A person with a high school diploma makes a net lifetime fiscal contribution of $287,000 and a college graduate will contribute $793,000.
The award-winning language program has been successful over the years, sending almost 90 percent of graduates to college in 2016. About 350 were enrolled in the program as of March.
Some have argued for years that the district’s antiquated enrollment policies are unfair to the refugee and immigrant students and undermine the mission to help them earn diplomas and prepare for college.
The board on Monday will consider a proposal to increase the time that some newcomers spend in high school to learn English and adjust to American life. One proposal would allow English learners age 16 and 17, who have no credits to transfer from their previous country of residence, to enroll as 10th graders, or sophomores, instead of being placed in 11th grade with other students their age.
The longtime policy of placing newcomers in grade levels based on their age, regardless of education experience, has forced some to squeeze English learning and mainstream coursework into less than four years of high school.
The school board could also formalize rules for “fifth year” status granted to some students at Modesto high schools who can’t graduate on time because they missed school, dealt with health issues or, in the case of refugee students, stopped attending school in countries where they first lived after fleeing their homeland.
The proposed language for fifth year status is more restrictive than current practice that has allowed some 20-year-old high schoolers to graduate in the past. Students would not be eligible if they would turn 20 during the extra year. Those approved for extra time are expected to graduate at the end of that school year.
Lindsey Bird, coordinator of the Language Institute, said Friday that some of the proposed language is a step in the right direction for newcomers, but she was still closely reviewing the policy updates, some of which were revised after a May 8 workshop.
Some advocates have suggested the district adopt a federal law that allows English learners age 19 to 21 to remain in high school. School board trustees have concerns about 21-year-old adults sharing classrooms with 14- and 15-year-old students.
“I could see both sides,” Trustee Chad Brown said last week. “I don’t know that new arrivals should be looked at differently than the general student population.”
Bird said a small number of Language Institute students would need to stay at Davis High until they are 21. Most students earn a diploma in the traditional time or with the fifth year option, Bird said. Some who age out before earning a diploma prefer to attend adult school.
A policy and guidelines could be written for newcomers like Fatima Musa-Khan who are enrolled late in their high school career and need to make up for large gaps in education. Of 20 students in the Language Institute who requested extra time this spring, Fatima was the only one who would turn 21 before graduating, Bird said.
The uncertainty experienced by those 20 students called attention to the need for updated policies. An uproar was sparked in April when their requests for an extra year were marked “pending approval” and then 10 of the students received denial letters, apparently because those students would turn 20 next year. Three students were allowed an additional semester and seven were approved for the extra year.
Lawyers with California Rural Legal Assistance filed discrimination claims and urged the district to reconsider the denials while the school board considered updated enrollment policies. Davis High administration issued new letters in mid-May, allowing 18 of the newcomers another year starting in the fall.
A coalition that backs the Language Institute doubts that newcomers like Fatima and Khuda will fare well with the online courses at adult schools.
Sam Pierstorff, an English professor at Modesto Junior College who has urged the school district to relax policies, said the community college is not as qualified and lacks the technology to teach newcomers who came here with no prior education.
English conversation classes for young adults are usually held a couple days a week. “They don’t get the daily immersion. The don’t get the emotional support and the interaction with other students,” Pierstorff said.
Sarah Williams, a case manager for World Relief, said there are no other suitable programs in Modesto for newcomers like Fatima and Khuda, whereas the Language Institute is especially designed to meet their needs. “She is doing really well and she could graduate if she had another year or two,” Williams noted.
Khuda said his sister can’t get a job without a better grasp of English and high school diploma.
Maria Merza is a college-bound student who gave up getting approved for another year at Davis. In just three years at Davis, the newcomer from Syria went from a zero score in English comprehension to reading almost at college level and earned a grade point average of 4.1.
Merza, 19, asked for a fourth year to take classes to make her eligible for University of California admission, but the promising student was denied. She ultimately decided to whisk through online classes in May to finish high school and is mulling over college options.
She is scheduled to testify Tuesday before the Senate Education Committee in Sacramento on Assembly Bill 2121, which would guarantee access to an extra year of high school to students who enroll in migrant education in 10th grade or later. The bill’s author, Assemblywoman Anna Caballero, D-Salinas, agreed to add refugee students to the bill.
Davis High student Halima Rajimi was overjoyed to have her initial denial letter reversed last month, giving her an extra year of high school. She said some of her friends were never in English immersion classes and gave up on school.
Rajimi, 19, speaks three languages from talking with people of different ethnic groups in Afghanistan and living in Pakistan, and knows Hindi from watching Bollywood movies. She needs summer school and another year at Davis to graduate and then attend MJC to earn credits to transfer to a university. She wants to work as an ultrasound technician.
Rogelio Rodriguez, 17, was 11 years old when he stopped going to school in El Salvador, where children walking to school are accosted by gangs. He sought political asylum in the United States and was enrolled in the Language Institute in December.
Rodriguez thought his time at Davis had been cut short but received a letter last month reversing the decision and granting him another year. He wants to become a police officer.
“In El Salvador, the leaders are focused on political issues and are not focused on bettering life for young people,” Rodriguez said through a translator.
Fatima, Khuda and an older sister have been refugees their entire lives after their parents fled Afghanistan when the Mujahideen and former Soviet Union battled for control of the country in the 1980s. Khuda said Afghans living in Pakistan deal with discrimination and he most likely faced a future of working as a laborer there. His mother had to pay for the three months of schooling he received.
Khuda, whose father died years ago, washes dishes at an ice cream shop in Modesto when he’s not studying at Davis High. He usually spends lunch time at Davis reading a book. He feels responsible for getting an education and supporting the family.
Haroon Mohammad, an Afghan who worked for U.S. special forces as a translator and guide, sometimes checks in on the family at an apartment complex in Modesto.
“I see him trying hard to support the family,” Mohammad said, referring to Khuda. “He is putting the pressure on himself.”
Khuda said the Language Institute is his best option for improving his English, earning a diploma and preparing for college.
“I am never going to give up,” he said. “I will still continue to study. Without an education, I can’t do anything.”