- Associated Press - Thursday, May 19, 2016

A school district accused of steering older immigrant children away from its high school and into inferior alternative programs will offer a spot in the high school to any 16- to 20-year-old who arrived during the last four years and automatically allow future arrivals to enroll, under a settlement announced Thursday.

The New York Civil Liberties Union and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman separately sued the Utica Central School District last year, charging the district’s handling of older students with limited English violated the students’ rights to equal educational opportunities. Students placed in the alternative “Newcomer Program” adopted in 2007 learned English but often had little chance for a diploma.

An Associated Press investigation published earlier this month found similar practices at dozens of districts in 14 states where unaccompanied immigrant youth fleeing violence in Central America have been placed.

“We hope the new policies for Utica will serve as a model for change for other districts that discriminate against immigrant children,” NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said.

Thursday’s agreement resolves the NYCLU lawsuit, which was brought, along with Legal Services of Central New York, on behalf of six refugee students. Schneiderman’s broader legal action remains pending.

Utica school district officials did not immediately respond to phone and emailed requests for comment.

“I’m happy and proud to see that others like me will be able to go to school without going through the same obstacles that I faced,” said Patrick Tuyizere, 19, who was placed in a GED program only for English-language learners upon his arrival in Utica from a refugee camp in Rwanda in October 2014. He transferred to Proctor High School after suing.

“For me,” Tuyizere said in a statement given through an interpreter, “being able to go to high school has given me more options for my future. I plan to graduate high school next year and then study engineering in college.”

Schneiderman’s office called the agreement “an important first step” in ensuring equal access to education for immigrant and refugee children.

The state action seeks a requirement that any alternative programs proposed by the district in the future be pre-approved, as well as guarantees that any student who was denied enrollment at Proctor High School be allowed to make up the lost time, even if it means staying in school past the age of 21 when the district’s obligation would normally end.

About 18 percent of Utica’s 60,000 residents were born outside of the United States and more than 25 percent speak a language other than English at home.

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