U.S. Third Circuit - The FindLaw 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries Blog

Refugee Students Can Go to International School Under EEOA

As a political storm swirls around refugees in America, a federal appeals court gave comfort to refugee students at a Pennsylvania high school.

The U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals said that the students -- some who had fled war and violence in Burma, Mozambique, Somalia, Sudan and Tanzania -- have a right to attend a high school that provides a better education for them. Citing the Equal Educational Opportunities Act, the court said the students do not have to go to an alternative school that did not help them overcome language barriers to their education.

Judge D. Michael Fisher, writing for the majority, said the refugee students were "flourishing" at McCaskey High School's International School. It would do them more harm to go to the Phoenix Academy, an alternative school that the local school district had mandated.

"Jockeying them back to Phoenix now would thus cause them greater harm, as the school district conceded during oral argument," Judge Fisher wrote.

Students With Limited or Interrupted Formal Education

The Lancaster school district had assigned the SLIFE students, who were 18 to 21 years old, to the for-profit Phoenix Academy for "accelerated recovery." But the students complained, saying the courses were too difficult because of their limited English. They had one remedial English class but took all their other subjects with native English speakers.

McCaskey, the local public school, has a program for English-Language-Learners called the International School. Students generally attend the program for a year, where they receive intensive ESL and "content-based ESL" for "sheltered instruction" in subjects such as math and science.

The American Civil Liberties Union, with help from the Education Law Center of Philadelphia and others, took the case for the students. The Justice Department, under Obama, also offered an amicus on their behalf.

"We recognize that a sound educational program has power to 'change the trajectory of a child's life,' while even a 'few months' in an unsound program can make a 'world of difference in harm' to a child's educational development," Judge Fisher wrote in affirming the trial court's injunction.

Overcoming Language Barriers

Maura McInerney, an attorney with Education Law Center, said the decision affirmed the right of immigrant and refugee students to a meaningful education that overcomes language barriers.

"Many immigrant students, particularly those newly arrived in the U.S. with limited prior education have unique and significant language needs that must be proactively addressed," she said in a statement. "They cannot languish in classrooms where they cannot access the curriculum."

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