Lancaster settlement is a victory for immigrant students

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

A nine-month legal battle over newly arrived immigrant adolescents in the Lancaster school district ended in a comprehensive settlement yesterday. The plaintiffs were refugees, but the settlement will affect immigrant students of all kinds.

The Lancaster district’s school board approved the agreement Tuesday, which stops the district from placing newly arrived 17- to 20-year-old immigrant students who don’t speak English fluently into a privately run-alternative school, called Phoenix Academy, as the district was doing before the settlement.

Phoenix Academy is run by Camelot—a private provider that runs alternative schools for older students and those with behavioral issues. A recent report by ProPublica and Slate contained allegations that Camelot staff members used physical force to discipline students.

The legal case involving the immigrant students at Lancaster’s Phoenix Academy did not include allegations of abuse.

The Lancaster district now must enroll the students in its International Program for immigrant students at the main public high school, McCaskey.

“Today’s agreement extends the guarantee of a strong and appropriate education to all older immigrant students settling in Lancaster,” said Witold Walczak, the ACLU of Pennsylvania’s legal director and one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, in a statement. “Our courageous clients should be very proud of their achievement.”

The class-action lawsuit—Issa v. School District of Lancaster—was filed in July 2016 on behalf of six refugees from Burma, Somalia, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The lawsuit alleged that the Lancaster school district denied plaintiffs and other immigrant students enrollment in McCaskey’s International Program, which was designed for newly-arrived immigrants, because the students were too old and might not graduate on time. The plaintiffs claimed that the district funneled those older immigrant students into an alternative, accelerated-credit recovery program that was academically inappropriate for them, which violated federal statutory and constitutional law.

The Phoenix Academy program was accelerated, condensing four years of high school curriculum into just two years, so students have to learn the same concepts in half the time.

While the program had some standard curriculum for English learners, most students at Phoenix are native English speakers. The English learners were thrown in with the rest of those students for classes in their core subject areas like science and history. At McCaskey, non-English speakers got a year of “sheltered” instruction in which a year of content taught in their native language.

The International Program at the McCaskey also taught the newly arrived immigrants about American education, society and culture. Even after the first year of sheltered instruction, every teacher in a core subject area at McCaskey was trained on how to modify their curriculum to help English learners whereas the equivalent teachers at Phoenix Academy did not, according to Maura McInerney, a senior staff attorney with the ELC who was one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs.

“The problem is that both our federal and state law talk about the importance of providing a meaningful education for students,” McInerney said. “When they attended Phoenix they were predominantly in classes with native speakers—they don’t understand anything that’s going on in the classroom so they’re not learning the content.”

McInerney added: “One of our main plaintiffs graduated from Phoenix that same summer and he did not know any English. He had to have an interpreter for his testimony at the hearing.”

After a five-day-long evidentiary hearing, U.S. District Court Judge Edward Smith granted a preliminary injunction ordering the school district to allow the six named plaintiffs to attend the International Program at McCaskey. Last January a unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed this injunction.

A trial seeking a final injunction was expected to take place this summer, but the settlement brings an end to these legal proceedings.

Under the terms of the settlement all newly arrived immigrant students with little or no English proficiency will automatically be assigned to the International Program at McCaskey, which will be renamed the Newcomer Program. Older new arrivals will no longer be required to attend Phoenix’s accelerated program, but they will still have the option to do so.

The settlement also mandates that the 11 students sent to Phoenix’s accelerated program since last August will have the opportunity to transfer to McCaskey immediately to complete their fourth marking period.

Besides the plaintiffs, the settlement affects immigrant students unable to enroll in the public school district since 2013, or who were placed in Phoenix this past year. They all are eligible for limited funds to support supplemental educational services, including post-secondary education. The funds total $66,500.

The plaintiffs were represented by lawyers from the ACLU of Pennsylvania, Education Law Center of Pennsylvania, volunteer counsel from the law firm Pepper Hamilton, and University of Pennsylvania professor Seth Kreimer.

The Lancaster district also agreed to allow the plaintiff’s attorneys to monitor the district’s compliance for two years.

“[The settlement] is critically important because the result recognizes the rights of English Language Learners to a meaningful education that will address language barriers,” McInerney said. “It affirms the right for immigrant students to equal education opportunities, and finally it’s important because the case involved older students who actually have a right to education in the commonwealth up to the age of 21.”

The Lancaster district recently extended its contract with Camelot to run the private, alternative schools for two more years at a cost just over $10 million.