A national civil rights advocacy group sent a demand letter to the Miami-Dade school district on Thursday urging administrators to address "the systemic denial of enrollment" to thousands of immigrant teens with limited English skills.
The Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center sent the letter on behalf of a 16-year-old immigrant teen from Guatemala who was allegedly denied enrollment at South Dade Senior High and "pushed into adult education."
In the letter, addressed to Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, the SPLC asked for the teen's immediate enrollment in high school as well as a meeting to address what the group described as a "pervasive practice" of denying immigrant teens the right to enroll in Miami-Dade schools and "forcing" them into adult education programs. The SPLC said the practice segregates the teens from their English-speaking peers and prevents them from earning a high school diploma.
"Exclusion of these children from public school violates state and federal law and conflicts with the welcoming messages you have sent to immigrant children in Miami-Dade County," the group stated.
The letter includes the stories of several immigrant teens — some as young as 15 — who spoke with the SPLC after they were denied enrollment in public schools in Homestead, Miami and Coral Gables last year. Some ended up in adult English classes.
The civil rights group also had strong words for Carvalho. The organization referenced public comments the superintendent has made in support of immigrant youth and asked him to "back up your words with action."
"Each day that these children are denied access to education results in irreparable harm to their future," the SPLC said.
In an e-mail, school district spokeswoman Daisy Gonzalez-Diego said Miami-Dade "remains committed to providing equitable access to educational pathways to all students, regardless of their status" and would "work expeditiously to ensure that the student is placed appropriately" in addition to arranging a meeting with the SPLC.
This isn't the first time the SPLC has raised concerns.
The group said lawyers first contacted the Miami-Dade school district about an immigrant teen denied enrollment in September of 2016. In March, the SPLC sent a letter on behalf of a 16-year-old Honduran student who was allegedly denied enrollment in high school and noted that the student's experience was part of a larger practice.
The mother of the Honduran student went to six schools on separate occasions between December 2017 and January 2018, and was turned away each time, according to the SPLC. At Miami Senior High, administrators allegedly told the mother that her daughter couldn’t be enrolled in the school because she didn’t speak English and wouldn't be able to pass an upcoming English test.
"The staff person said that the school could only enroll the child in evening classes, because she had to learn English before she could go to regular public high school," the letter states. "After SPLC contacted your office on her behalf, the child was enrolled at Booker T. Washington Senior High School."
(Because the teens mentioned in the letter are minors, the SPLC redacted their names in a copy sent to the Miami Herald.)
Gonzalez-Diego said that after receiving the SPLC's March letter, the school district quickly enrolled the student in school. She said Miami-Dade had been contacted by the SPLC about three specific student cases over the course of a two-year period and that school staff had "accommodated individual student needs and each one of these cases was addressed expeditiously." Gonzalez-Diego added that the SPLC's letters "indirectly reference" other students using only an initial, which made it difficult for the school district to "ascertain the identity of the students in question and provide the necessary accommodations."
Michelle Lapointe, acting deputy legal director for the SPLC, said that in addition to enrolling individual students, the school district should make systemic changes to ensure immigrant teens have access to high school.
"It is our hope that, in addition to enrolling the individual students that we brought to the district's attention, they work with us to address the issue," she told the Herald.
A Herald/el Nuevo Herald investigation published on Wednesday chronicled similar stories involving immigrant teens. For years, Miami-Dade schools have steered, and sometimes pushed, immigrant teens into adult education programs where they take classes in Spanish to prepare for the Spanish GED (General Educational Development), the Herald/el Nuevo Herald found. Roughly a third of the students enrolled in the Spanish program passed the GED last school year, according to information provided by the district.
School administrators stressed that schools work with immigrant students and their parents to help them decide whether to attend an alternative program. But the vast majority of the students interviewed by the Herald/el Nuevo Herald said it wasn't clear they had a choice. Some teens weren't allowed to enroll in high school when they first arrived in Miami, and were sent directly to adult education programs. Others were told to transfer to the GED programs after they struggled in class.
After the Herald inquired about the school district's policies for enrolling immigrant teens in adult education programs, Daisy Gonzalez-Diego, the district spokeswoman, said the district plans to review the Spanish GED program.
"Although the program was created with pure intentions, there is room for reassuring its integrity," Gonzalez-Diego said. The school district said it would now require verification of parental consent to place students in a GED program, in addition to training staff on enrollment protocols and issuing a directive to schools.