PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A U.S. appeals court says older refugee students in a Pennsylvania school district can choose to attend a mainstream high school instead of an alternative school, agreeing with the American Civil Liberties Union that the alternative program wasn't getting the job done.
Disputes over how to educate 17- to 21-year-olds with little formal schooling in any language are erupting across the country. School districts in Utica, New York, for example, have faced similar lawsuits.
In the Pennsylvania case, Lancaster school officials say they welcome refugees but need the flexibility to place students where they see fit. They say older students have a better chance of earning a diploma at the district's alternative school, Phoenix Academy.
But the ACLU calls the program "a dead end" compared to the traditional high school's international program, which serves refugees and immigrants under 17 when they enroll.
A district judge heard five days of evidence last summer and issued a temporary ruling for the ACLU.
The appeals court ruling Monday allows the ACLU's six plaintiffs to choose which school to attend until a trial on the issue this summer.
Circuit Judge D. Michael Fisher said in the written ruling: "The plaintiffs already demonstrated a reasonable probability that Phoenix's programs are unsound for them and fail to actually overcome their language barriers under (federal law)." But, he added, the school district should be given the chance to come up with a plan acceptable to the courts.
At least one appellate judge during arguments questioned whether a Phoenix Academy diploma had any value if students, as some had testified, did not know enough English to understand their other classes.
The ACLU and two other advocacy groups say they will seek to expand the case into a class-action lawsuit.
Lancaster Superintendent Damaris Rau expressed disappointment Thursday with the ruling.
"We have gone above and beyond most other places in welcoming refugees. ... That's why it's so demoralizing," she told The Associated Press. "This lawsuit really is not about refugees, it's about school districts having local control over placement decisions."
The case has cost the district $144,000 in legal fees so far.
Phoenix Academy enrolls 320 students who have fallen behind their peers and can quickly make up credits to graduate by age 21, when students lose their eligibility to attend public high school. The ACLU said the program was weaker in both English language instruction and other subjects.
"The building down the road can teach these kids effectively, while Phoenix is an educational dead end," said ACLU lawyer Witold "Vic" Walczak, who argued the case in December.
About 17 percent of Lancaster's 11,000 students are English language learners and nearly 5 percent are refugees. The main high school, McCaskey, has 172 refugees among its 2,800 students, Rau said. Phoenix Academy has about 20.