Dozens of Loudoun students are still reeling from news that they will be kicked out of their high schools after they turn 20 because of a change in how the school system enforces an enrollment policy.
The school system’s policy states that students who are 20 years or older may remain enrolled in high school tuition free if they are “reasonably close to completing graduation requirements,” keep good attendance, and demonstrate a serious intent to graduate.
For years, principals have regularly submitted waivers for hard-working students who, many because they were still learning English, needed another year to complete all of the required credits. And the Department of Pupil Services would generally yield to the principals’ recommendation and approve those waivers, according to guidance counselors and teachers.
But that changed this year.
High school guidance counselors and English Language Learner teachers were informed at the start of the academic year that the school system would now more narrowly interpret the policy, and only provide waivers to students beyond their 20th birthday if they had eight or fewer credits to complete before graduating.
That meant that several students who thought they were on track to earn a diploma were kicked out of their home high schools.
“I was totally shocked,” said Fiorella Zevallos, a 20-year-old student at Broad Run High School.
She moved with her family from Peru to Ashburn a year ago, and she is now a permanent U.S. resident. In September, six weeks into this school year, her teacher told her she had just received word that the Department of Pupil Services was changing the rules, and because she still needed 10 credits to graduate, it would be her last day as a Broad Run student.
“When I started school, they told me I have until I’m 22,” she said. “There was a plan in place to get every credit I needed by the time I turned 22. But now suddenly they say never mind.”
This change mostly impacts students who are new Americans still learning English. Cory Brunet, an English Language Learner teacher at Broad Run High School, said that’s because students who came to the U.S. without knowing English are first required to take Newcomer English and Intermediate English before they can take English 9, the first class that will fulfill any of their required English credits. Then, they still have to fit in English 10, English 11 and English 12 before aging out.
“So even if we pack their schedule, it’s hard for them to fulfill all of their English requirements,” Brunet said. That’s why students learning English have been given waivers, to give them another year to finish their credits. “As long as the teacher and counselor vouched for that student, the principal would send in a waiver and the central office would always approve it—always. And this year, they stopped.”
It’s difficult to know how many students this impacts throughout Loudoun’s 15 public high schools, in part because some guidance counselors were told not to send requests for waivers if students 20 or older had more than eight credits to complete.
Brunet knows of three students just at Broad Run who were impacted by the change this year and several others who will age out before the start of next school year, and expects there are dozens more throughout the county. Guidance counselors who did not want to talk on the record for this article said high schools in eastern Loudoun have as many as 30 students who aged out this year before graduating under this new practice.
Students Without a Voice
Brunet and Magdalena Usiskin, who chairs Broad Run High School’s ELL Department, have told the School Board at meetings in the past month that the change in practice should have been phased in so it doesn’t affect students who were told they were on track to earn their diploma.
“We had to say goodbye to some of our hardest working students. Students, parents, teachers and counselors had no idea this was going to happen,” Usiskin told the board at its Jan. 23 meeting. “If something similar would have happened to special education students, you would have a line of attorneys out the door. Instead, you have me, the voice of an ELL student.”
“I don’t find the rule bad, but let’s put it black and white in the policy so it’s clear,” said Brunet, addressing the School Board at a recent meeting. “What has been done to them is completely unfair. They deserve the opportunity to complete the graduation plan they started.”
Emails and calls requesting comment from administrators in the Department of Pupil Services were not returned, but Public Information Officer Wayde Byard answered questions about the policy over email.
He stressed that the policy has been in place for several years and has not changed. He said that the school system wants to provide adequate time for our students to complete their studies, but also needs to comply with state law.
How Loudoun schools enforces its policy is stricter than the state law. “In order for LCPS to award a diploma, students must be able to complete all verified credits for graduation prior to the summer school graduation date and their 21st birthday,” Byard said. However, state law allows schools to enroll students for whom English isn’t their primary language if they entered school in Virginia for the first time after reaching their 12th birthday and who are 21 years old or younger. They are not eligible if they turned 22 years old on or before Aug. 1 of the school year.
Fairfax County Public Schools’ policy mirrors the state’s allowance and permits students whose primary language is not English to continue their education until they are 22 years old.
Byard said, eight credits is typically the most credits feasible to complete in a year, but the school staff could also enroll the student in virtual instruction and dual-enrollment courses to get a few beyond that, depending on their ability and the required courses.
According to Byard, 107 students received waivers this school year after turning 20 years old because administration determined they could complete their remaining credits in one year. Last year, 81 students received waivers, and 57 students received waivers in 2015-2016.
If administration determines the student will likely not earn their final credits before they turn 21, the school system provides a few alternatives to the typical high school experience, Byard said. It will provide free transportation to evening Adult Education and Young Adult English Learner programs, as well as Graduate Equivalency Degree (GED) classes, for one school year. Adult high school classes cost $300 per course, and the GED prep program costs $180.
“This allows the student to obtain a GED and look at continuing education options or receive training that will allow them to enter the work force,” he said.
Zevallos now attends the adult education program on Monday and Wednesday evenings, taking geometry and English 9. She said it’s hard to pick up the lessons online without help from a teacher.
“So I’m not practicing English at all. No one is teaching the class,” she said.
Brunet is concerned that these students, who are still learning English, will not succeed in online classes because there is not the same support system that a typical high school offers. Plus, it will take three or even four times as long.
“In one year, she was going to take eight credits at Broad Run, and now she’s only taking two,” Brunet said. “When is this girl ever going to graduate?”
‘I’ve Already Come So Far’
As the policy is practiced now, this will be 19-year-old Liliana Bran’s last school year at Broad Run. She’ll be left with 11 more credits to earn in one of the evening programs, which she expects will take her two more years.
But she’s determined to finish her diploma. “I’ve already come so far,” she said.
Bran first came to the U.S. two years ago. At 17 years old, she walked by herself from Guatemala to Texas. “Immigration told me ‘you can stay but you need to go to school,’” she said, adding that she is here legally on temporary protected status.
She flew from Texas to Northern Virginia to be with her cousin and, within a few days, she walked into the Broad Run High School front office to enroll. She remembers walking through the chaotic buzz of the school cafeteria on her first day and feeling like she was drowning. A teacher made an announcement, prompting everyone to leave the room. Bran was left confused because she couldn’t understand what was said.
“I felt useless,” she said. “And I said, I don’t want to feel this way ever again. I’m going to learn English. I’m going to work hard and do this.”
Now, she feels like her dream has been put into slow motion.
While balancing a full course load at Broad Run, she works 55 hours a week to cover her costs and some of her family’s. She hurries from school to Chipotle for evening shifts and then from there to clean offices overnight.
“It’s expensive here. Sometimes I don’t eat because I don’t have the money because I need to pay for my rent,” she said.
Bran said she loves and respects her mother, a single woman raising seven sons in Guatemala, but she wants a different life. “My family is poor. My mother works all the time. It’s a difficult life,” she said.
She’s brought to tears when she thinks about what it will take now to earn her high school diploma. Her plan is to enter the U.S. Army, to not only serve her new country but also to help pay for college. But she was just informed last month that the Army requires a diploma over a GED.
“It makes me so sad because I feel they’ve taken opportunity away,” she said, in tears. “I know many kids have their parents helping them and they don’t need to work, and sometimes I’m so angry when I hear them say ‘I don’t think I’ll go to college’ and yet they have the opportunity. I’m working on my own for that same opportunity.”
Ruth Callejas, a 19-year-old, was also recently informed this would be her last year at Broad Run, and she’ll be left with at least five more classes short of a diploma. She moved from El Salvador to Loudoun County on temporary protected status in January 2015 after gang violence got terrifyingly close to her and her family.
She had just one year left of high school in her home country. She was on the national softball team and had just applied to the nursing program at the local university, when her plans abruptly changed. As she rode a bus to school one morning, gang members stormed the bus and kidnapped several girls her age.
“I saw that,” she said through an interpreter. “My family was scared that would happen to me.”
She still has a dream to work as a nurse, and she’s settling in with the fact that it will take her longer to reach it. “I don’t know what I’m going to do now,” said Callejas, who works 25 hours a week at Matchbox in One Loudoun. “I just keep working, and keep my eyes on graduating somehow.”
“I need to graduate. I want to go to college,” said Zevallos, who works full time at HomeGoods but wants a career in marketing and advertising design.
Bran is also keeping her head down and eyes on her goals. She recently got a promotion to manager at Chiptole and is talking with her counselors about enrolling in the adult education evening classes to earn her diploma. Her sights are set on eventually working as a doctor or in the field of agronomy, the science of soil and crop production.
“The plan changed and it will take longer, but I’m still focused on graduating,” she said. “That is my dream. That is the big thing in my life.”