Phoenix and McCaskey

McCaskey High School, bottom, and School District of Lancaster's alternative school, Phoenix Academy, top.

Refugee students who took School District of Lancaster to court over their school assignment will get to attend McCaskey High School next week.

U.S. District Judge Edward G. Smith on Friday ordered the district to enroll the students at its regular high school instead of Phoenix Academy, an alternative school where they said learning is "impossible" because of language barriers.

Refugee students testify about education at Phoenix Academy: 'Even if I graduate, I will know nothing'

Six refugee students, all with limited English proficiency, sued the district last month over their placement at Phoenix, as well as delayed and denied enrollment.

"We're thrilled the court recognized that the district must provide refugees and English language learners with equal educational opportunities till age 21. That's what this case is all about," said Vic Walczak, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which is one of the groups representing the students.

Full coverage: 6 refugee students sue School District of Lancaster

A spokeswoman said the district will comply with the order but did not give further details or comment.

The district counted at least 517 refugees among its 11,300 students in 2015-16.

School district to review enrollment procedures in response to refugee lawsuit

The district places students who are 17 and older with limited credits at Phoenix, its accelerated program for students who are not on track to graduate. The refugee students involved in the lawsuit all fall into that category.

During a five-day preliminary hearing at a federal court in Easton, district officials said their school assignment practices are focused on ensuring students earn a diploma before "aging out."

But the refugee students said that a lack of English language support make it "impossible" to learn at Phoenix.

Pennsylvania law guarantees a free public education from age 6 to 21. Federal law requires school districts to ensure that language barriers do not impede equal access to education.

Discrepancies between the English language program at Phoenix and McCaskey took center stage in court.


Court order in refugee lawsuit against School District of Lancaster

English language learners at the alternative school get one period of direct language instruction to English language learners. They take all other classes with native speakers.

At McCaskey, students who are new to English are part of an "international school," enabling them to take all their classes with peers at a similar language level.

An expert on teaching English as a Second Language testified in court that McCaskey's model is the best approach.

In his written opinion, Judge Smith said the district's emphasis on graduating students does not supersede legal obligations regarding language barriers.

At Phoenix, "Although the student earns (or at least is issued) a diploma and all of the attendant benefits, the student will likely graduate with limited ability, if any, to converse in English — also often a prerequisite to future advancement — and limited understanding of the content of the courses he actually took," Smith wrote.

Phoenix is operated by Camelot Education, a private company based in Texas at a district cost of about $4 million per year. 

The refugee students, all of whom have fled some kind of violence in their home country, also condemned the climate at the alternative school.

They spoke, for instance, about their discomfort with the hands-on security pat down all Phoenix students go through before entering the school.

“It makes me feel like I'm a bad person. It makes me hate the school," said Qasin Hassan, 17, who left his home country of Somalia after a terrorist group killed his father.

Superintendent Damaris Rau promised to stop pat downs for refugee students at Phoenix.

Walczak, the ACLU attorney, said of the judge's decision: "These are kids who've lived lives of unimaginable trauma and difficulty. If anybody deserves a break they do, and we're just so thankful they've finally gotten one."

Smith's order to the district is a preliminary injunction. The lawsuit could still proceed to a full hearing for a final determination. The parties also could settle before then.

Judge's opinion in refugee lawsuit against School District of Lancaster