Refugee Students Sue Lancaster School District over ESL Programs

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Reviewed by Mary McLaughlin, Ma-TESOL; M.S. SpEd

Lancaster School District is defending its English as a Second Language (ESL) program after student refugees filed a lawsuit against it. The lawsuit alleges that the school district has been sending older students who are limited in their English speaking ability to Phoenix Academy to enroll in an accelerated program. It contends that such programs would be more beneficial to the students if they were taught at the high schools.

The suit also claims that older students were sometimes left to wait for several months before being enrolled in a school even though Pennsylvania state law mandates a maximum wait of five days.

Helaine Marshall, a professor at Long Island University and bilingual expert, testified that she believes the Phoenix Academy’s curriculum is detrimental to refugees because it expects students to move through content faster than their understanding level allows. According to Marshall, McCaskey High School in Lancaster, would provide the foundation the students need to become proficient in English. McCaskey offers an International Baccalaureate program which provides intensive language support to students during their first year of school or until they score high enough on proficiency tests.

Damarius Rau, the district’s superintendent refuted claims that older students were being turned away but added that she would investigate the situation further. She said that sometimes older students are recommended to the program at Phoenix because after the age of 21, they are no longer eligible to free public education in the state of Pennsylvania. “Our overriding goal is to get them to graduate. For students who are ESL, the state and federal government requires us to make accommodations,” she said. She also said that a student’s ability to speak English fluently shouldn’t affect their readiness to enter college or begin a career.

The lawsuit is being heard by Federal Judge Edward G. Smith and is expected to last about one week.