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Immigrants win right to attend Lancaster public high school

Refugee children in Lancaster can choose to attend the city's main public high school instead of the privately run alternative academy to which the school district had funneled them, according to the settlement of a nine-month legal battle announced Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.

The agreement, approved by the Lancaster School Board on Tuesday night, opens the way for newly arrived 17- to 20-year-old immigrant students with little or no English fluency to attend a newcomer program at J.P. McCaskey High School and restricts the district from outplacing them to the for-profit Phoenix Academy, which plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit had alleged was an inferior option.

The settlement "extends the guarantee of a strong and appropriate education to all older immigrant students settling in Lancaster," said ACLU legal director Witold Walczak, who argued the class action last July on behalf of six students from Somalia, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Myanmar. "Our courageous clients should be very proud of their achievement."

In a statement, Lancaster School Superintendent Damaris Rau said the settlement "allows a small number of older and under-credited students to access a revised program at McCaskey," while allowing the district discretion in programming and planning.

The district serves 11,300 students, including 1,950 identified as English-language learners.

The lawsuit, Issa v. School District of Lancaster, alleged that the district denied the foreign-born students enrollment at McCaskey because they were older and might not graduate before they aged out of public school at 21. The district argued that the accelerated-credit recovery program at Phoenix was appropriate for them.

The settlement, which the parties are finalizing, automatically assigns new immigrant students to McCaskey, although older students will have the option of attending Phoenix.

A spokeswoman for the school district said its insurance company would pay $300,000 for the plaintiffs' legal fees. An additional $70,000 in district funds will reimburse  the plaintiffs for out-of-pocket expenses of the litigation. Separately, a total of $66,500 in district funds will be made available to the six named plaintiffs for educational supplements, such as a GED program, if they are unable to graduate before aging out, the spokeswoman said.

In August, after a five-day trial, the federal District Court in Easton granted a preliminary injunction, allowing the six plaintiffs to attend McCaskey. In January, a unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the injunction. A trial seeking a final injunction had been anticipated for this summer.

The lawsuit alleged that the district's policy violated federal statutes and constitutional protections. The district consistently denied those claims.

After the injunction was issued in August, 11 immigrant students were assigned to Phoenix. Under the settlement, they will be offered the opportunity to transfer immediately to McCaskey to complete the school year, or they can transfer thereafter. For two years beginning with the signing of the settlement, plaintiffs' attorneys will be allowed to monitor the agreement for compliance.

A copy of the original lawsuit, along with the decisions of the district and appellate courts, can be found at