Immigrant students can now attend high school in Utica after a settlement agreement was reached with the district. The suit Tuyizere vs. Utica was filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union and Legal Services of Central New York last April on behalf of six students who were repeatedly denied enrollment in Proctor high school after months of letters, phone calls, and threats of litigation. Legal Services staff attorney Susan Young says the students had been placed in alternative programs in violation of state law that guarantees a free public education to anyone under 21.
"Every student I met desperately wanted to learn English better, and found that being in a classroom with no native English speakers and people who spoke eight different languages really hampered their ability to learn English as well as they wanted,"
Susan Young says the students also wanted to make friends and immerse themselves in American culture. Legal Services Director of Advocacy Sam Young (no relation to Susan), says the students would have been denied an essential tool to get ahead.
"These segregated alternative programs would not ever result in a high school diploma for these kids," Sam Young said. "One reasons the district was apparently reluctant or unwilling to admit them was their belief that these students would not earn a high school diploma if they were admitted to the high school. At least now they have that opportunity."
Sam Young says since the litigation began, the students have excelled.
"These students have really defied expectations by the district in the strides that they've made in the year they've been in Proctor High School...in the amount of English they've learned, in their academic accomplishments."
Sam Young says Utica’s treatment of newly arrived older immigrant students is not unique across New York or the nation. Susan Young says they’ve talked with other districts, including Syracuse, who had a similar policy.
“The difference in that case is we worked with the district and their counsel," Susan Young said. "Over a fairly short period of time, the alternative program was disbanded and students were enrolled in the four area high schools.”
Young says several other districts have followed suit by voluntarily changing their practices. A lawsuit by the state attorney general’s office against the Utica district has not been settled.