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Kentucky Bill Would Extend Graduation Time For Refugee Students, Education Department Has Concerns

Thang Lian is a resettled Burmese refugee student who attends Jefferson County Public Schools’ Newcomer Academy. In March, he turns 21, which means the district can no longer financially support his education.

So he’ll have to choose another path.“My parents and my counselor were talking about next year I move to GED,” he says.For some the GED high school equivalency diploma is an option; others may enroll in Jefferson County's online alternative program.On Tuesday, Kentucky's House Education Committee approved bill that would give refugee students like Lian an additional two years to graduate, extending state spending for these students to age 23.The law may only help a few students—it’s difficult to identify who they are—but many are dedicated to learning, says Gwen Snow, associate principal of Newcomer Academy, which serves non-native English speaking middle and high school JCPS students up to the 10th grade.“These are students that are very serious about continuing their education. Not only do they want to get a high school diploma, they want to go onto college or get career training. But specifically college is a major goal for them,” she says.But the Kentucky Department of Education is concerned about parts of the bill. For example, there could be additional costs to the state and local districts and equity issues could arise, like not providing the same opportunity for special education students, education department officials say. As WFPL previously reported, officials estimate more than 500 school-age children have been resettled in Jefferson County alone over the past year. That number is expected to rise, officials say.Further, data from the Kentucky Office of Refugees shows over 100 refugees between the ages 14 and 17 have been resettled each year throughout the state over the past several years. Many of these students enter the public education system with limited English and fall behind their peers academically, Snow says.“There are several of them—not to any fault of their own—but they’ve missed a little bit of education,” she says.Similar legislation to House Bill 79 has won House approval before but has failed in the Senate, says bill sponsor Rep. Jody Richards, a Bowling Green Democrat.Policy makers in Bowling Green and Louisville recognize the need to serve a growing refugee population, Richards says, but it hasn't garnered enough support.“I really don’t know what it is,” he says. “It’s not really a funding issue because there are not that many [refugee students].”Part of the problem exists in the bill’s language, says Nancy Rodriguez, a KDE spokeswoman.Richards says the money for extending time for these students could come from left over Support Education Excellence in Kentucky (SEEK) funds, which are the state’s per-pupil allocations to school districts.But there isn’t always left over SEEK money, Rodriguez says.Also, “it would be difficult to identify these groups of students who would be eligible without asking for information on their immigration status, and districts cannot legally require proof of immigration status in order to enroll a student,” she writes in an email.Richards estimates there may be fewer than 100 students who would benefit from this law, but there have been no formal studies and Rodriguez says she’s unaware of any data tracked by the education department that would show the need.But the students exist.Lian’s parent moved to Indianapolis but he stayed in Louisville, living with this sponsor, to complete school. But without graduating this school year his options become limited.“I cannot move to another school,” he says. “I want to go to school.”(Image via Shutterstock)

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