Montgomery, Md., Schools Made Teen Wait and Wait to Go to School

Jeff Sukkasem, 14, won admission to Montgomery County schools after a two-year battle.
Jeff Sukkasem, 14, won admission to Montgomery County schools after a two-year battle. (Daniel De Vise - The Washington Post)
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By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Jeff Sukkasem is a U.S. citizen and legal resident of Montgomery County, with a passport, a library card and a volunteer job at a local Thai Buddhist temple. For the past two years, however, he essentially has been barred from public school.

Jeff, 14, has not set foot in a classroom since March 2007, when he left his mother and sister in the Bangkok suburbs and flew to the United States to live with family friends. The soft-spoken teen, a native of California, said he is here to resume his American life. But school officials regarded him as a visitor, sent to an affluent Washington suburb to attend its superior public schools. They said he would have to pay to do so.

Until yesterday. In the face of mounting publicity, the Montgomery school system granted Jeff admission to Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda as a regular student, free of charge. After two years, they reasoned, there is little doubt that he is here to stay.

"It's unfortunate that this has dragged on for so long," said Brian Edwards, chief of staff to Superintendent Jerry D. Weast.

The dispute illuminates occasional tensions between the Washington area's high-flying suburban schools and families seeking admission. Some claim an address that is not theirs. Others send a child to stay with friends or relatives in the county.

"There are people who will do just about anything," Edwards said.

The school system has developed an elaborate gatekeeper system to catch cheats. The downside: It might shut out some people with a legitimate claim to attend county schools.

Jeff's case was unusual. He was born in San Jose and raised in Richmond, Calif., until his family returned to Thailand when he was 9. Jeff said he struggled for three years in Thai schools, unable to read or write in Thai. He returned to the United States in 2007, at age 12, and took up residence in Montgomery with a family friend, who became his legal guardian.

"I didn't see anything I could do in Thailand," Jeff said.

But school officials concluded that he had come to Montgomery for free schools. They declared him an international student and said he could attend only if he paid nonresident tuition. County policy says a student can be denied resident status, even with a Montgomery address, if it appears residency was set up "for the purpose of free school attendance."

As to compulsory attendance laws, school officials said it was the family's responsibility to comply, either by paying tuition or home-schooling him.

Jeff said he could afford neither the $14,000 tuition nor a plane ticket home. His father, a police officer, is paid the equivalent of $136 a month; his guardian works nights and makes less than $30,000 a year.

Jeff said he has spent the past two years teaching himself, at home and in a Bethesda public library.

"It was really hard," he said. "I had to find out what to do, when to do it."

This fall at Walter Johnson, Jeff reckons he will have some catching up to do.

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