High school students whose primary language isn’t English will now get a bit more time to work toward their diploma.
The Loudoun County School Board cast a 7-2 vote Tuesday night that ties up months of debate that has played out in committee and board meetings. The board agreed to change its policy to give high-performing English Language Learner students who turn 20 on or before Aug. 1 of the school year an opportunity to stay in their home high schools for one more year and take up to eight credits. They will go on to alternative programs, such as Adult High School, to complete any additional credits before graduating.
Jill Turgeon (Blue Ridge), who crafted the new language, and Joy Maloney (Broad Run) said it was a compromise because it doesn’t go as far as the law allows.
“This is not a situation where everyone got what they wanted, but I think this is fair compromise,” Turgeon said.
“This is not what I wanted out of this policy. I wanted more,” Maloney said, adding that she appreciated Turgeon’s work to find a middle ground.
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, demonstrated good attendance, and received waivers.
But for the 2017-2018 school year, the administration more narrowly interpreted 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.” Assistant Superintendent of Pupil Services Mary Kealy has said they interpreted that to mean no more than eight credits, because that’s generally how many a student can complete in one year.
The change meant some students who thought they had until they were 22 years old to finish their credits were walked out of their home schools on their 20th birthday. 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. While school leaders are now working to improve those programs, they do not offer all of the classes required to graduate and they can take students twice as long to complete their credits.
Fiorella Zevallos, 20, was escorted out of Broad Run High School in September, six weeks into the school year. She had initially been told she had until she was 22 to graduate, so she filled her class schedule to tackle as many required credits as possible. But administration’s change in practice meant that she could not receive a waiver because she had 10 credits left to complete, two more beyond the limit.
The new policy adopted this week is not retroactive, so it’s too late for Zevallos and other students who were kicked out of their home high schools this past year.
After the board’s vote, Zevallos said on one hand she felt angry that she was denied the opportunity to study one more year at Broad Run, and get that much closer to graduation. “But on the other hand,” she added, “I’m glad that one way or another I have been able to help other young people who are going through the same thing as me and are still young enough to continue studying in high school and future young people who come to this country with a dream and goals to overcome.”
School Board member Debbie Rose (Algonkian), who opposed the new policy along with Eric Hornberger (Ashburn), has said in committee meetings that she wished the students who were impacted this past school year—and thought they had until they were 22 to earn their diplomas—were grandfathered in. But she said Tuesday that she doesn’t approve of 20-year-old students in high schools alongside 14 year olds.
“You’re putting adult students in a regular school setting,” she said. “It is a big deal.”
Tom Marshall (Leesburg) pointed out that the law allows special education students to stay in school until they are 22 years old. “They allow that because special education students need more time to complete high school. Well, Virginia law allows ELL students more time because they’re learning a new language,” he said. “I see no reason why it’s different.”
Four people spoke in support of the policy change ahead of the board’s vote. Among them was Cory Brunet, an English Language Learner teacher at Broad Run High School who’s told the stories in committee and board meetings about several of her students who aged out this year.
“This a move in the right direction compared to what we had in August,” she said. “But it’s not perfect and definitely doesn’t go as far as we want.”