[lg policy] Refugees seeking education fight school district policy that keeps older students out

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Mon Jun 4 10:13:25 EDT 2018

 Refugees seeking education fight school district policy that keeps older
students out

By Ken Carlson

kcarlson at modbee.com

   - <?subject=Refugees seeking education fight school district policy that
   keeps older students

June 03, 2018 03:22 PM

Updated June 03, 2018 05:46 PM

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.
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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.
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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

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

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

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.”
Refugees Khuda Musa-Khan, left, and his sister Fatima Musa-Khan have been
told they can no longer attend Davis High School language institute because
they have aged out, both have 50 more units to earn their diplomas.
Photographed at their home in Modesto, Calif., Wednesday, May 30, 2018. Andy
Alfaro aalfaro at modbee.com
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Read more here:


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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