A School Board committee meeting got emotional this morning when students who had been kicked out of local high schools because of a change in how the school system interprets graduation policy came to share their stories.
Virginia law allows schools to enroll students for whom English isn’t their primary language until they are 22 years old if they entered school in Virginia for the first time after reaching their 12th birthday.
That is generally the rule Loudoun County Public Schools has followed—until this school year. They now more narrowly interpret board policy that 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, school system administration gave waivers to students who needed another year to complete all of the required credits, especially for students who were still learning English. But this year, teachers and counselors were told they could only provide waivers to students beyond their 20th birthday if they had eight or fewer credits to complete before graduating.
The change meant dozens of high school students who thought they were on track to earn a diploma were kicked out of high school.
Fiorella Zevallos was one of those students who was walked out of Broad Run High School in September because she had 10 credits left to earn, beyond the new standard of eight. At this morning’s School Board Student Support & Services Committee meeting, Zevallos, 20, shared how she and her family legally moved from Peru to Loudoun County two years ago.
At the time, she was told she had until she was 22 years old to complete all of the required credits to earn a diploma.
“I worked very hard and got very good grades in all my classes and was supposed to graduate next year…Then in September, they told me I could not continue to study,” she said. She later enrolled in adult education evening classes, which allows students to continue their education but at a much slower rate.
Zevallos said she’s not sure how long it will take her to graduate because the evening courses allow her to take just two credits at a time. “I feel really disappointed. It’s difficult when you feel your opportunity has been taken away,” she said.
Addressing the committee in tears, Cory Brunet, an English Language Learner teacher at Broad Run High School, commended Zevallos for her bravery to speak up about what the school system has “unnecessarily done to her.”
She told board members about another one of her students who is also at risk of aging out before earning her diploma, under the school system’s new guidelines. Fardeena, 19, moved with her family from Kabul, Afghanistan, on a special visa the U.S. gifted her father as a thank you for risking his life to help American soldiers. The school system is now requiring Fardeena to complete four years’ worth of high school work in three and a half years, on top of learning a new language, Brunet said.
“Loudoun County should recognize the sacrifice these students are making. You should not put more pressure and give them less time to graduate than a typical student,” she said.
The committee heard from Director of Student Services Clark Bowers and Assistant Superintendent of Pupil Services Mary Kealy on recommendations they have to include more specific language in the policy. Among their suggested changes is to direct counselors to communicate alternative educational options to students who have aged out, for staff to more carefully monitor students’ eligibility to continue working toward their diploma, and to notify students months earlier if they are at risk of aging out.
School Board member Debbie Rose (Algonkian) said she supports staff’s recommendation to give English Language Learner students until their 21st birthday to earn their diploma. “Having adults, 22-year-olds, in the same building as 14-year-old freshmen is a safety concern,” she added.
Committee Chairwoman Joy Maloney (Broad Run) disagreed, stating that the students must receive a waiver from their teachers and principals based on their work ethic and good academic standing.
“I don’t understand why we wouldn’t give them the amount of time the law allows if we have this waiver process, when the principal has to say that this is a hard-working student who is not a safety risk. Why wouldn’t we take advantage of that?” she said. “That’s obviously to our county’s benefit to have students graduate.”
Maloney also noted that many of the improvements school administrators want to make to the alternative education programs, such as Adult Education and Young Adult English Learner programs, are dependent on the budget for next fiscal year. The funding level approved by the county Board of Supervisors is $14.9 million short of the School Board’s request.
“Now we have to cut $15 million out of that,” she said. “So right now, we don’t really have a whole lot of options for these students.”
The committee will discuss the policy again at its May meeting, which has not yet been scheduled. Both Rose and Maloney said they want to talk to staff more about options to grandfather in students who were initially told they had until they were 22 to earn a diploma.
Four other people spoke in support of either allowing immigrant students who have shown good merit to continue pursuing a diploma until they are 22, or to at least grandfather in students who were unexpectedly impacted by the change. Among them were Shye Gilad, CEO of ProJet Aviation in Leesburg; Nancy Yu, who is working on the American Civil Liberties Union’s People Power campaign; and Sandy Shihadeh, co-founder of local nonprofit All Ages Read Together. They presented the committee with a petition with 486 signatures in support of changing the policy to the full extent the law allows.
“Why would we not want to have students who are willing to attend our schools do so?” Shihadeh said. “There are many other people who are following this story and want to see our students succeed.”
Liliana Bran, a former Broad Run student who was told earlier this year she would age out before earning her diploma, also attended the meeting. Committee member Jill Turgeon (Blue Ridge) was not present for the meeting.