Tucked between red brick row houses in Bay Village, Boston Adult Technical Academy has helped scores of immigrants over the years realize their dreams of earning a high school diploma so they can flourish in college.
Rebecca Datus enrolled last year, shortly after arriving from Haiti, speaking barely any English. She has gained a stronger grasp of the language and has been looking forward to graduation in June. She would like to become a doctor.
“It is my dream since I was a little child,” Datus said through an interpreter one day after school. “I want to be somebody and help my family.”
But Datus might not get that diploma after all. When she turns 22 in March, the School Department plans to kick her out, a situation about two dozen of her classmates will also face before commencement.
School district officials this year are taking a hard-line approach in enforcing a two-decade-old policy that calls for ejecting students from school on their 22nd birthday — an edict they had routinely ignored in the past if overage students were on track to graduate.
The reversal is causing an uproar among students and teachers, who argue strict adherence is creating an unnecessary barrier for students — many of whom have already overcome steep odds — to earn a diploma, go to college, and build a better life for themselves in America.
In a school system that has been trying for years to boost graduation rates, even knocking on dropouts’ doors to lure them back to class, teachers say rigid enforcement of the age limit just a few months before commencement is nonsensical.
“We say students are welcomed, then we give them the birthday gift of being kicked out,” said teacher Gage Norris.
The Boston School Department declined an interview request. In a statement, it said it is planning to discuss the issue with teachers and administrators in the coming weeks.
Massachusetts is one of the few states nationwide that do not set a cut-off age for students to earn a diploma, leaving it up to local school systems to decide. Debates often include emotionally charged questions, such as how long school systems should give students a chance to earn a diploma and whether it’s wise to have young teenagers and students old enough to purchase alcohol in the same building.
The Boston School Committee passed its policy in 1999 as the school system grappled with more than 1,000 students over the age of 20. At the time, some educators worried about whether immigrant students, who made up a big portion of the over-20 population, would receive enough support in part-time adult education settings that are not designed to support students with major language barriers.
Those concerns persist. The programs typically hold sessions only a couple times a week for just a few hours at a time — considerably less than the nearly three dozen hours of weekly instruction at a high school.
“Those programs are in shambles,” said Roger Rice, executive director at Multicultural Education Training and Advocacy, a Somerville-based nonprofit that works on behalf of linguistic minorities, noting adult education programs are significantly underfunded. “Newcomers to this country get virtually no support.”
He added, “What is the social good of booting them to the curb midyear?”
Teachers at Boston Adult Technical Academy, also known as BATA, are seeking to formally loosen the policy so 22-year-old students with good academic records can receive their diplomas in June.
“It would be such a simple policy change,” said Gina Cogan, a teacher. “The number of students it would affect in the district would be very small, but the benefits would be tremendous.”
The dispute is the latest flashpoint in the school system’s ongoing struggle to educate off-track and overage students. A city-commissioned report last May slammed the school system for failing to do enough to help these students get to graduation, calling for an overhaul of alternative education.
The report came on the heels of controversial efforts by the School Department to disenroll dozens of students for a variety of reasons from alternative education programs last school year, as it more closely scrutinized enrollment.
This is the second year BATA teachers and administrators have waged their fight. The School Department initially sought to enforce the policy last year, but the School Committee voted to give the school a one-year reprieve after teachers and administrators raised concerns.
A big issue at the time was that students were not told of the policy before they enrolled. This year, instead of amending the policy as teachers and administrators had hoped, the School Department informed students about the policy during registration. Students nearing the age of 22 were given the choice of enrolling — under the condition they wouldn’t be able to finish — or entering a part-time adult program.
Erickson Alves, 22, was directed to a part-time program, Boston Central Adult High School. Alves, who moved to Boston in 2016 from Cape Verde, had previously been at BATA and felt out of place at Boston Central with students considerably older than him. The twice-a-week program didn’t provide enough time for him to learn English.
He eventually worked out a special arrangement to take classes at BATA, where he is teaching teachers Cape Verdean Creole, but the arrangement is now in jeopardy as the School Department pushes policy enforcement. He worries he won’t earn a diploma and go to college.
“They are cutting my dream,” said Alves, who would like to become a teacher.
Supporters of alternative education say that maximum age requirements should be flexible because their students often have many learning deficits and are juggling other life issues, such as child-rearing or full-time jobs. The alternative education programs in Boston serve a mix of students born and raised in the city and newcomers to the country.
Nilton Brandom, 24, a Cape Verdean immigrant, pushed through BATA and graduated last spring, while working as a custodian. Now he is at Massachusetts Bay Community College and hopes to be a mechanical engineer someday. Meanwhile, he is working for an office supply company.
“I would come to school so tired. Every morning I would look into the mirror and say, ‘Don’t give up, don’t give up,’ ” said Brandon, praising teachers at BATA for their support, including helping him learn English. “They bring hope.”
He added, “I’m sad for my friends” who won’t be able to graduate this year, including Sonilisa Cardoso, who will turn 22 in February.
Cardoso, a Cape Verdean immigrant who still needs more individualized support to gain fluency in English, worries her forced exile from the school will derail her dream of becoming a nurse. She would like to care for children who need medical attention.
“They say I have to go, but I really want to stay,” she said.