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SPLC demands equal education for immigrant children

When Victor came to the U.S. from Guatemala, he was eager to attend high school so he could study his favorite subjects – science and math – and prepare for a career in engineering, technology, medicine, or some other field where he could make good use of his talents.

But when the 16-year-old went to enroll at South Dade Senior High School in Homestead, Florida, the registrar looked over his documents and said he could not be admitted to the school because he was too old, and because he had only completed the equivalent of middle school. Instead, she said, he should go to adult education, where he would be “better off.”

In adult education classes, students do not learn academic subjects like math, science, and history. Nor can they earn credits toward a high school diploma. If they are lucky, they might end up with a General Educational Development (GED) certificate, which studies show can negatively impact their long-term career prospects. Victor’s segregation from his peers who speak English also keeps him from participating in the full high school experience, and from learning English in informal settings. Victor’s name has been changed to protect his identity.

The SPLC is demanding that Miami-Dade County Public Schools (“Miami-Dade Schools”) enroll Victor in a regular public high school. In a letter to Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto M. Carvalho this week, the SPLC also demanded a meeting with the school leader to discuss the systemic denial of enrollment to the school system for thousands of immigrant children who speak little or no English.

“We seek Victor’s immediate enrollment in a public high school where he can take academic classes and participate in the regular high school program alongside other children his age. Miami-Dade Schools must enroll all students who come through their doors into a regular school program, regardless of their immigration status or English-language proficiency, as state and federal law require,” said Michelle Lapointe, acting deputy legal director for the SPLC.

In the letter, the SPLC says it has spoken with at least 11 children whom Miami-Dade Schools has refused to enroll because of their limited English skills – including a client it had brought to the superintendent’s attention in 2016.

The letter also states that it is following up on previous correspondence from March 14 in which it sought the immediate enrollment of yet another English Language Learner (ELL) student in a Miami-Dade public high school. Both children the SPLC represented were enrolled after the SPLC’s advocacy, but the District has treated these as isolated cases and failed to address the systemic problem affecting thousands of immigrant ELLs.

The SPLC emphasized to the district that there is a “pervasive practice within Miami-Dade Schools to deny high school enrollment to ELL teenagers, forcing them into adult education programs where they cannot earn a high school diploma.”

This week’s letter also cited data from the Florida Department of Education, indicating that over 1,800 students ages 15 to 17 were enrolled in adult education in Miami-Dade County in the 2016-17 school year, including 23 15-year-olds. Under Florida law, 15-year-olds are required to be enrolled in regular school full-time. The records also revealed that 485 16-year-olds and 1,323 17-year-olds were enrolled in adult education instead of regular high school.

Each day the school district denies Victor a proper high school education causes him extreme harm, and pushes his dream further out of reach, the letter said.

Victor “is falling behind on key subjects and losing valuable time during which he could be earning credits toward a high school diploma and accessing the ELL Plan available at regular public high schools,” the letter says. “The window for him to attend public high school narrows each day as he gets older. Not only does this threaten his cognitive development and long-term career potential, but it denies him the benefits of association with students and teachers of diverse backgrounds. [Victor’s] situation is urgent and Miami-Dade Schools must remedy the harm immediately.”

The SPLC’s demand for immigrant children to receive a proper education is firmly rooted in federal and state law. In 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Plyler v. Doe that it is unconstitutional to deny a child present in the United States a public education based on his or her immigration status. The Florida Constitution guarantees the right to a free public school education to all children residing in the state. Florida’s Educational Equity Act also prohibits public schools from discriminating against students or employees on the basis of race, ethnicity or national origin.

Denying school enrollment to immigrant children who do not speak English also violates the federal Equal Educational Opportunities Act (EEOA) of 1974, “which requires that educational agencies take appropriate action to overcome language barriers that impede equal participation by its students in its instructional programs,” the letter states.

The SPLC cited an interview in which Carvalho described his experience “as an undocumented teenager in America,” “not speaking a word of English,” and how he had pledged as school superintendent to give a high-quality education to immigrant children.

“We ask you to back up your words with action on behalf of students like Victor,” the letter says. “Each day that these children are denied access to education results in irreparable harm to their future.”