Many refugee students register for school using the wrong birthdate. Advocates urge Aurora district to change how it verifies age.

Some Aurora students are aging out of local schools — often because of an incorrect birthdate on their immigration documents.

“I had several students who were about to age out and they had no idea,” Kati Van Sicklen, a teacher at Aurora Central High School, told Chalkbeat. “Specifically for the refugee population, they don’t know their age. A lot of them have a January 1st birthday. Age just has never truly been a part of their life.”

She is asking the school board to consider a simple solution: accept students’ baptismal records to verify their age.

School board members took an interest in the issue when Van Sicklen brought it to their attention last month, and pressed district officials to look at whether they could make that change. The district, for its part, has acknowledged the problem.

Aurora Public Schools, one of the state’s most diverse districts, had 1,551 refugee students enrolled during the 2018-19 school year — making the issue particularly resonant in this community.

Denver Public Schools and the Denver Preschool Program have long accepted baptismal certificates, and as of a couple of years ago, so too does the Poudre School District. The Aurora district, however, does not.

The problem for refugee students is that when their families leave home in a hurry they may not be able to pack documents. Sometimes documents don’t exist after war or natural disasters. Other times they don’t have legal documents because they were members of a marginalized group in their homeland and the local government did not recognize them.

Without typical legal documents, such as a birth certificate or a passport, refugees coming into the U.S. can get a designated age on immigration documents, but it’s often incorrect.

Van Sicklen has found, as part of her research, that at refugee camps, rumors may spread that families should lie about their children’s age so that they can reach working age sooner. For some such refugee students a baptismal certificate sometimes exists with a more accurate age, but it is not recognized by the Aurora school district, she said.

When a student who is still trying to earn a diploma turns 21, by state law, they are no longer entitled to free public school and must move on. Correcting the age of a student who is not really 21, would give that student more time to try to complete graduation requirements.

Colorado counts students who age out of school without completing high school in the same category as dropouts, which means they count against a district’s performance ratings.

“Accepting a baptism certificate would allow them to continue their education and that would determine their future,” Van Sicklen said.

The district’s attorney, Brandon Eyre, told the school board the district is aware that many students enrolling in the district have incorrect ages.

“They will be designated an age by the department of immigration, and that doesn’t always match up with what we see in the child,” Eyre said. “But it is also their legally stated age. We’ve struggled with what do you do with that.”

Maggie Lautzenheiser-Page, the school programs coordinator for Lutheran Family Services Rocky Mountains, an agency that helps resettle refugees, said that she encountered the problem about two years ago as more students ended up in the situation where they were aging out. For some, she said, the solution is moving into the Denver school district, but she said that’s not always possible.

“The opportunity to graduate from high school should not be determined based on what side of Yosemite you are resettled in,” Lautzenheiser-Page said, referring to the street that divides the city of Aurora and Denver in a common area for refugees to resettle.

Van Sicklen said one of her students, dropped to the floor when she told her she would have to leave the school soon.

“When you wait your whole life to come to the U.S. to get an education, specifically for our girls, it’s devastating,” Van Sicklen said.

The district’s attorney, Eyre, told the school board that district officials are also concerned about the younger students who have incorrect ages. Refugee students often come to U.S. schools with interrupted schooling, and so may be behind academically. In addition, many don’t speak English when they arrive. Adding a couple of years to their age and placing them in a higher grade may compound the problems.

Silvia Tamminen, the coordinator for the Aurora Welcome Center, who also spoke in favor of allowing baptismal certificates to verify age, said there is a process to place younger students.

“If there’s a reason we believe a child should be placed in a different grade than their age would indicate, then we have a process of assessments,” Tamminen said.

That would include testing students for literacy in their own language, and in math, using an interpreter, to gauge a better placement.

But in high school, regardless of grade placement, new students who don’t come in with previous credits, and are close to age 21 may not have time to complete their credit requirements for graduation.

Superintendent Rico Munn said that in some cases if a school requests a waiver for a student that may be on track to graduate but turns 21 in the middle of the school year, he can grant the student the ability to stay. However, district officials said they have not received any waiver requests in the last two school years.

“To see our kids want to go to school and not be able to, it’s really hard on them and on all of the educators involved in trying to support them,” Lautzenheiser-Page said. “Even if it helped six students, I think it’s worth it.”

For Van Sicklen, the bigger issue after allowing baptismal records is helping all district students who are at risk of aging out create a plan, adding, “we’re just not serving students like we should be.”

Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect that Aurora Public Schools has not received any waiver requests for refugee students in recent years.