In a county that is seeing more non-English speaking students moving in each year, school leaders say it’s time to provide them more support to ensure they make it across the finish line to graduation.
Administrators told the School Board earlier this month about several new programs they’re launching next school year that are designed to give students—especially those whose primary language isn’t English—more options to earn their diploma.
This comes after it was made public that dozens of students aged out of local high schools this year because of an unexpected change in how the school system interprets and enforces graduation policy.
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. Loudoun County Public Schools has generally followed that rule, allowing students to continue until they were 22 if they were highly recommended by their teachers and counselors and received waivers.
But this school year, the administration changed its practice only allow students who are 20 years or older to remain enrolled in their home high schools if they have eight or fewer credits to complete before graduating.
It meant dozens of students who thought they had an additional year to finish their credits were walked out of their home schools. Many were referred to evening Adult Education and Young Adult English Learner programs, but several students said the classes were all online with little to no help from a teacher.
“So I’m not practicing English at all. No one is teaching the class,” said Fiorella Zevallos, who was enrolled in Adult Education evening courses after she was kicked out of Broad Run High School in September, on her 20th birthday and six weeks into the school year.
This change mostly impacts students who are new Americans still learning English because they are first required to take to take Newcomer English and Intermediate English before they can take English 9, the first class that fulfill’s any of their required English credits. Then, they still have to fit in English 10, English 11 and English 12 before aging out.
While school administrators have acknowledged in Student Support Services Committee meetings that the new programs may be too late for those students who aged out this school year, they said they want to ensure that more don’t fall through the cracks in the future.
Ashley Ellis, assistant superintendent of instruction, presented details about three new programs. The first is called Accelerated Bridge Program to give 15 to 17 year olds still learning English extra support—“and a push,” Ellis said—to finish more credits each year to earn their diploma before aging out.
The second is an Adult High School day program, which will enroll 20 to 40 students who are 18 years or older and require 12 or fewer credits to earn a diploma. This would be in addition to the Adult High School evening program. The third initiative is a Young Adult English Learner day program, which will be in addition to the Young Adult English Learner evening program. That’s expected to enroll 50 students, ages 18 through 21. Both the Adult High School and Young Adult English Learner programs will be tuition free for students 18-21, and transportation will be provided for students who have not yet turned 22 on Aug. 1 of the school year.
The day programs will begin in August, at the start of next school year, and have an eastern and central Loudoun location.
Ellis said they will be housed in non-school buildings that have not yet been identified. School Board members Eric DeKenipp (Catoctin) and Debbie Rose (Algonkian) have raised concerns about having adults in their early 20s learning in the same building as students in their early teens.
“Ideally, we’ll have a site in eastern Loudoun and central Loudoun,” she said at a May 8 board work session.
School Board member Tom Marshall (Leesburg) told Ellis he’s happy more options are being added, but it still means that any students referred to the alternative programs instead of staying at their home high schools will take longer to graduate. They can earn eight credits per year in a typical high school, but would typically earn about half that in the alternative programs.
The Student Support Services Committee has discussed clarifying the graduation policy that currently 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” and demonstrate a serious intent to graduate. Administrators now define reasonably close as 8 or fewer credits. Joy Maloney (Broad Run), who chairs the committee, and Rose have said they would support grandfathering in any students who were impacted by the change in practice this school year, but the committee has passed up a vote on the matter duirng its past three meetings.
Shye Gilad, CEO of ProJet Aviation in Leesburg who’s led the effort to get a petition signed by 500 people in support of grandfathering in the impacted students, has pleaded with board members at several committee and board meetings in recent months. At a May 8 meeting, he urged the School Board to allow the students the time they had initially been promised to graduate.
He challenged board members’ assertion that families have complained about having freshmen and sophomore students sharing a learning environment with older students. He said Wayde Byard, the school system’s public information officer, confirmed there has not been one complaint.
“This should not come as a surprise because the policy ensures that these students could not even be recommended if they had any history of disciplinary issues,” Gilad said. “Why fix a policy that was not even broken, without even a consideration to provide a grandfather cause for deserving students like Liliana?”
He referred to Liliana Bran, a former Broad Run High School student who was told earlier this year she would age out before earning her diploma. After she learned that the adult education evening programs would significantly slow down her progress toward her diploma, she dropped out of school. She said she plans to focus on her two jobs and one day earn a GED.
Asked if she would like the students from this school year grandfathered in, Ellis said, “We want all of our students to graduate, and we know that students have different needs. So we’re creating more ways for them to do that.”