Education

Appeals Court Backs Injunction for ELL Program Sought by Refugee Students

By Mark Walsh — January 31, 2017 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

A federal appeals court has upheld an injunction allowing refugee students with limited English proficiency in a Pennsylvania school district to transfer from an alternative school for underachievers to a regular high school with special help for English-language learners.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, in Philadelphia, unanimously ruled for a group that includes students with limited or interrupted formal education, or SLIFE, who had fled war and violence in countries including Burma, Mozambique, Somalia, Sudan, and Tanzania.

The Lancaster school district assigned the students, who were generally 18 to 21 years old, to the Phoenix Academy, an alternative school run by a for-profit provider focusing on “accelerated credit recovery” but which court papers say focused on seat time, stringent security measures, and a strict dress code. English-language learners at the academy take one English-as-a-second-language class but otherwise learn all their other subjects with the general population.

The Lancaster district argued, among other things, that it believed Phoenix Academy to be more appropriate for older, non-credited high school students.

The refugee students were backed by the Education Law Center of Philadelphia, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, and a friend-of-the-court brief filed by President Barack Obama’s administration when the case was argued in December.

The students sought the injunction to attend McCaskey High School, a traditional public school that includes a program for English-language learners called the International School. Such students generally attend that program for one year, where they receive intensive ESL and receive “content-based ESL” teaching using “sheltered instruction” in subjects such as math and science.

The refugee students claim in court papers that Phoenix Academy’s accelerated curriculum was too difficult for them to grasp and they couldn’t understand what most of their teachers and classmates were saying.

The students sued the Lancaster district, alleging that the district’s refusal to allow them to enroll at McCaskey High violated, among other things, a federal statute called the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974 and the Pennsylvania public school code.

A federal district court granted the injunction on the basis of the federal and state law.

In its Jan. 30 decision in Issa v. School District of Lancaster, the 3rd Circuit court upheld the injunction based on the EEOA but sent the state-law claims back for further development.

The EEOA says that “no state shall deny equal educational opportunity to an individual on account of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin, by . . . the failure by an educational agency to take appropriate action to overcome language barriers that impede equal participation by its students in its instructional programs.”

The 3rd Circuit panel applied a key legal test drawn from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit’s 1981 ruling in Castenada v. Pickard, which requires school districts to take appropriate action to remedy language deficiencies among their students.

The 3rd Circuit said “the district court did not err in concluding that the plaintiffs showed a reasonable probability that Phoenix’s accelerated, non-sheltered program isn’t informed by an educational theory recognized as sound by some experts in the field, as required under” the appropriate legal test.

Also, “the plaintiffs showed a likelihood that Phoenix’s program fails to produce results indicating that their language barriers are actually being overcome,” the appeals court said.

“The record before us ... belies the school district’s contention that Phoenix is where the plaintiffs ‘can best be educated,’” the appeals court concluded. “Under the EEOA, we reject an educational agency’s call for unfettered decision-making authority when its programs fall short of [the statute’s] mandate.”

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Trauma-Informed Practices & the Construction of the Deep Reading Brain
Join Ryan Lee-James, Ph.D. CCC-SLP, director of the Rollins Center for Language and Literacy, with Renée Boynton-Jarrett, MD, ScD., Vital Village Community Engagement Network; Neena McConnico, Ph.D, LMHC, Child Witness to Violence Project; and Sondra
Content provided by Rollins Center

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Hundreds of Conn. Bus Drivers Threaten to Walk Off the Job Over Vaccine Mandate
More than 200 school bus drivers could walk off the job in response to a vaccination mandate that goes into effect Monday.
1 min read
Rows of school buses are parked at their terminal, in Zelienople, Pa. Reopening schools during the coronavirus pandemic means putting children on school buses, and districts are working on plans to limit the risk.
Rows of school buses are parked at their terminal, in Zelienople, Pa. Reopening schools during the coronavirus pandemic means putting children on school buses, and districts are working on plans to limit the risk. <br/>
Keith Srakocic/AP Photo
Education Briefly Stated: September 22, 2021
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
9 min read
Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)