The Boston Public Schools can’t be expected to educate students forever. But the outcry over a plan to resume enforcing an age limit in the district exposes how few options are available for older students who may still need help learning English and achieving academic proficiency.
This year, the district plans to boot students from the classroom after they turn 22. Many of the students who will be affected are recently arrived immigrants with limited English skills.
That cutoff is within the city’s rights. Massachusetts requires school districts to provide free public education to students only until they’re 22 — and lets municipalities decide what to do after that cutoff. In 1999, Boston enacted the 22-year-old limit policy, banning anyone older.
But the rule hasn’t been enforced as the district has struggled with significant enrollment of students older than 20, some of whom are recent immigrants with minimal or no English language skills.
Most end up at Boston Adult Technical Academy, an alternative school that meets the needs of recent arrivals with language barriers. The school has allowed students who entered before turning 22 to continue but now is cracking down. About two dozen students there are in danger of being kicked out before graduation.
It’s particularly unfortunate considering who these immigrant high schoolers are.
Take Rebecca Datus, age 21, who arrived from Haiti last school year barely speaking any English and is on track to get her high school diploma. At the time she enrolled, the cutoff wasn’t being enforced. Now she stands to lose her spot when she turns 22, in March.
To be fair, the district warned students this year that it would be enforcing the age limit. And the district itself has real financial constraints. Still, it’s possible to sympathize with both the district, which has to draw lines somewhere, and the students. At the very least, BPS could offer the affected students an appeal process for them to make the case they deserve to graduate beyond 22.
More crucially, perhaps, Boston’s sudden enforcement lays bare a profound and persistent need for increased funding for adult education and specifically English as a Second Language adult programs.
According to state figures, there are more than 1 million people statewide in need of English-language or high school equivalency (GED) services. Currently, the state serves roughly 12,000 adults in English as a Second Language and 6,400 in GED programs. More than 17,000 are on the waitlist for English instruction. State funding for fiscal year 2019 included a few million dollars more than the previous year, rising from $29 million to $33 million. But adjusted for inflation, funding has decreased 24 percent since 2001.
Expanding adult education, particularly the state’s capacity to offer English as a Second Language instruction, should be a priority for Beacon Hill. In the meantime, Boston should do what it can to minimize the disruption to students affected by the age-limit rule.