Maria Merza started high school late. At 13 years old, she stopped going to school because war came to her hometown of Al-Thawra, Syria. She was 16 years old when she started her first full year of high school as a sophomore at Grace M. Davis High School in Modesto, California.
Merza struggled at first. But she was helped by participating in the Language Institute, an English immersion program for students like her: newly arrived refugees and immigrants.
“I was actually motivated because I wanted from the bottom of my heart, to go back to school. That’s all,” she says.
In April 2018, Merza asked the school for another year at Davis, to take classes that would help her thrive in college — a fourth year of English, plus statistics and advanced placement biology. But Merza would turn 20 during that extra year, or what’s known as “super senior” or “fifth year.” And at the time, her school district said students over 18 should be in adult education. For Merza, it would mean leaving the only school in the US she knew.
“I was lost because I had like a goal or a dream and, in a moment, it just destroyed it,” she says.
Courtesy of Maria Merza
Merza is one of the estimated 695 school-aged refugee children who arrived in Stanislaus County from 2013 to 2017, according to the California Department of Social Services. For those who arrive in their teens, age could determine whether they’ll have access to public high schools. A Supreme Court ruling in 1982 found that foreign-born students, regardless of immigration status should, have the same access to public schools as their native-born peers. But states determine the minimum and maximum ages for access to free public education. In turn, local school districts set their own enrollment rules based on those ages.
Advocates say these local rules and practices sometimes push newly arrived students from the benefits of having a high school experience. Schools might outright reject some students from enrolling, or else they enroll students in alternative schools or adult education programs for their GED high school equivalency exam. At Merza’s high school, some teachers and students feel that the inability to have a “fifth year” for college prep courses is one way of pushing students out.
Lindsey Bird, a social science teacher at Davis High School and former coordinator for the Language Institute, says schools should be providing pathways for students.
“Not push them out and make them someone else's problem,” she says.
Meanwhile, supporters of local policies that restrict students based on age say older refugee and immigrant students can succeed in other educational settings such as community college and adult education programs, which might offer more age-appropriate environments.
What does it take to make it in America? For many immigrants, it’s education. Check out Brain Gain, a series of stories about how immigrants find their way around roadblocks in the US education system.
It’s difficult to know how often schools block older, newly arrived immigrant teens from enrolling in or staying longer at traditional high schools, but experts say these students sometimes need more time and support in a high school because of gaps in their education due to war or extreme poverty. Sometimes their existing educational credits don’t transfer to US schools and some students have to learn English. Alternative programs might not be able to fill these gaps.
“It's not granting these students the sufficient amount of time to not only acquire the English language, but also gain subject content knowledge,” says Amelia Herrera, an English teacher also with the Language Institute at Davis High School.
In September, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill, AB 2121, that puts newly arrived immigrant students in the same category as migrant, foster and military children who might need special graduation and enrollment accommodations.
The office of California State Assemblywoman Anna Caballero, who authored the law, says in 2019 schools will be required under the law to permit “newcomer” students to stay for a fifth year, if the student needs the extra time to complete graduation requirements.
Civil rights groups challenge enrollment policies
Modesto City Schools is not the only district grappling with age and enrollment policies. In the past few years, civil rights groups filed lawsuits in Florida, Pennsylvania and New York, accusing school districts of funneling immigrant students to adult school programs rather than traditional high schools.
Khadidja Issa immigrated to the US in 2015 when she was 17 years old. She tried to enroll into McCaskey High School in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which was known for having an English immersion program. She says a school official told her she didn’t need to go to high school. But she was unable to read, speak or write in English and she knew she needed to learn the language to be successful in the US.
“I did not understand nothing, that’s why I need to go to school,” she says. “I really need to learn. If you did not get an education from school, you might have a very hard life."
The district eventually put her in an alternative high school, where she did not understand any of her classes. Issa had spent most of her life in a refugee camp after her family fled Sudan when she was five years old.
Vic Walcazk, an attorney with the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union who helped Issa and other students sue the School District of Lancaster for this practice, says the district only blocked enrollment for older students. He says when they insisted on enrolling, the district funneled them into the alternative high school.
“It was only the older students,” says Walcazk. “And what we learned through the discovery process, is that the school district was really trying to up its graduation rates.”
Having students who can't graduate by their senior year hurts high schools’ graduation rates, which the Department of Education uses in their evaluations of public schools.
Nonetheless, Pennsylvania’s maximum age for free public education is 21, Walcazk argued. A judge sided with the students in August 2016 and granted a preliminary injunction to let the students enroll at McCaskey. A federal court later upheld that decision and the school district opted to settle the lawsuit.
Jackie Perlow is an attorney with the Education Law Center in Pennsylvania, a group that helped the students with the lawsuit. She says schools don’t always have rules about admitting older students. What’s more common are situations where individual school officials “counsel out” students from regular high school.
“So someone, a teacher or a guidance counselor or administrator, suggesting that a student go somewhere else, or take a different program or get their GED instead of going into the regular classroom,” she explains.
Marguerite Lukes is a researcher with the Internationals Network for Public Schools, a non-profit group that works on education for newcomer students who are English learners, and author of the 2015 book, “Latino Immigrant Youth and Interrupted Schooling.” She says age issues come up because schools worry older students can’t graduate.
“A dilemma that faces every school district in the United States is the issue of students aging out,” Lukes says.
Graduation rates are a high stakes measurement for many public high schools. And when older teens with a lot to catch up on try to enroll, administrators are aware that the student might not be able to get enough credits to graduate and would therefore, be counted as a dropout, says Julie Sugarman, a policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute.
“That's going to be reported and you know some in some areas, those kinds of accountability measures are made very much public and are a big deal to schools and to individual administrators,” she says.
But ultimately, experts say, students and their families should be able to choose what kinds of schools they attend.
“It’s really the student’s choice and the family’s choice to stay in school,” says Lukes. “If you choose to stay to pursue your high school diploma then that's your path of choice, the question is about choice and opportunity. If you choose to go to a different kind of program, in a different institutional setting, that's your choice.”
Even if a student can’t earn a diploma at the high school, there are benefits in being in that setting, Perlow, the attorney, says.
“There is value to those social interactions and learning how to navigate systems, especially for students who are new to the US and new to these institutions in general,” says Perlow. “I think that there are those situations where it's not necessarily about earning the diploma, it's about all the other benefits of being in school.”
Becky Fortuna, a spokesperson for Modesto City Schools, says graduation rates do not impact the district’s enrollment policies and how they’re implemented. She says the district acknowledges the need expand adult education programs for all students including those who age out and who are English-language learners.
“We know that it needs work and it's something that we're building on,” she says.
What works for older, immigrant high school students
Experts says there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, but programs that immerse students in English classes — while providing opportunities to be in mainstream classes as soon as possible or at the same time — are usually the most effective for newly arrived teens who are English learners. Peer teaching and having one-on-one interactions with teachers also help these students catch up, says Lukes.
That’s why there was pushback at Davis High School in Modesto. The Language Institute, which Bird coordinated from 2009 to 2018, offers this kind of instruction. And it works, she says: About 90 percent of students in the Language Institute end up pursuing higher education.
“We're using an age, a birth date to push kids out of what is obviously the best education environment for them, for their success,” she says.
Merza credits the program for getting her up-to-speed in high school. She went from zero English comprehension to near college-level language skills, and she flourished outside of the classroom, participating in clubs, college prep programs and sports. By comparison, Modesto’s district’s adult education program has no access to college prep courses nor does it have the same extracurricular opportunities that make high school special.
Sara Noguchi is the new superintendent at the district and says traditional high school doesn’t have to be the only option. Adult education could be a bridge connecting students to community colleges and other institutions for further education or training.
“I absolutely embrace adult education if we can create systems that further supports the needs of students and the communities we serve,” Noguchi says.
About 80 miles west of Modesto, Carmelita Reyes is principal at Oakland International High School which was created to serve newcomer students. She says at her school, students are allowed to stay longer if they need more time.
“Our typical graduate is 19 and we graduated at least 20 20-year-olds last year,” Reyes says.
“I just think there's a lot of fear and a lot of misconceptions about who these immigrants are — and they’re children.”
Bird, at Davis High School, says that for years she asked the Modesto City Schools district accommodate older, immigrant students through age 21 — or to go a step further and enroll all children based on their educational experience and not their age.
In spring of 2018, Language Institute students and teachers spoke at school board meetings to ask for a review of age restrictions in its enrollment policy. Some school board officials in Modesto said they were uncomfortable with the idea of 21-year-olds potentially being in the same classes as 14-year-olds.
The Modesto school board held a public workshop and eventually voted to change the policies in June 2018. Newly arrived, English-learner students who enroll at age 16 through 17 may be able to stay for up to three years of high school, and they can also apply for a fifth year through age 20.
But this fall, teachers and students learned that the policy still won’t allow a fifth year for college literacy readiness or for university eligibility purposes. They can only use it to earn their diploma.
And Bird says it’s unclear how the new California law, AB 2121, will impact the students who are seeking a fifth year this school year. The law takes effect Jan. 1, 2019.
Regardless, the policy change in Modesto and the new California law won’t help Merza.
She finished her graduation requirements in spring of 2018, when she learned other students her age were being turned away from the fifth year. But that wasn’t enough time to take classes that would allow her to apply to her dream school, the University of California, Davis.
Instead, she took a year off school to work and plans to apply to California State University and other schools.
"When I’m gonna go to college, I'm actually gonna do all the things, I’m gonna study harder, because I’m sad about it," she says. “If you're sad about something and you want to do it but you can't because of obstacles that you’re facing, that's gonna motivate you more."
With additional research and reporting by Tania Karas.