D.C. charter schools say they were never under investigation for enrollment procedures

Officials at two D.C. charter schools, BASIS DC and Capital City, said Friday that they have never denied admission to immigrant students and were shocked to see their schools named among those under federal investigation for enrollment procedures that discriminate against undocumented children.

“There’s never been a complaint about Capital City denying access to immigrant students,” said Karen Dresden, Capital City’s head of school. “We do have a lot of undocumented families, and they’re part of our community.”

Phil Handler, a spokesman for BASIS DC, echoed Dresden’s comments and said his school has never received a complaint. “We’re completely in the dark. It looks, frankly, like a mistake.”

The U.S. Education Department said Thursday that the two D.C. charters are among 17 schools or districts that federal officials have been investigating in response to complaints about enrollment procedures that discriminate against immigrants.

The list of schools was released along with new federal guidance meant to clarify the kind of information schools can require of enrolling students.

Education Department spokeswoman Dorie Nolt said Friday that complaints at both D.C. schools have been resolved and that the Office of Civil Rights “made no finding that these schools had been intentionally attempting to discourage any group of students from enrolling.”

Nolt said that in the course of investigating other issues regarding services for students learning English as a second language, federal officials asked the two schools to submit student-enrollment documents for review.

Investigators found that the schools were using forms that asked for information about students’ birthplace, Nolt said, raising concerns that the form “might chill” undocumented immigrants’ willingness to enroll. The schools voluntarily agreed to change the form.

Officials at the two schools acknowledged that they had been the subject of federal civil rights complaints about underidentifying and underserving students who need extra support learning English as a second language. BASIS DC has also received complaints about its services for students with disabilities.

But officials from both schools said that no one has ever complained about discrimination in enrollment. And Dresden, the head of school at Capital City, said the enrollment form that drew scrutiny from federal investigators was generated by a citywide education agency.

In a strongly worded letter to parents Friday afternoon, Dresden said that Capital City had been “misrepresented” by the Education Department and subsequent news stories.

“As you know, Capital City has always been committed to serving immigrant students and their families,” Dresden wrote. “We work hard to remove barriers that are typically faced by immigrant families and to support our students and their families in positive ways, and will continue to do so.”

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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