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    Albany school district strengthens screening of “illegal students”

    By Linjun Fan  

    Arslan Mesihovic, father of a six-grader in Albany Middle School, spent the holidays anxiously looking for a place to live in Albany. He was given an ultimatum by the Albany Unified School District in mid December: he needs to restore his Albany residence by Jan.25, otherwise his son would be dismissed from school in the new semester.

    Mesihovic is among the 15 parents who were recently found out by the school district to be sending their kids to Albany schools without living in the city or having a permit for transfer.

    He and his ex-wife lived in Albany for a number of years. Their son has been attending schools in the city since kindergarten. When the parents moved out of Albany in 2006, one now living in Richmond and the other in Oakland, the child stays in Albany schools.

    “I just want him to stay here. It’s a nice school, ” Mesihovic said. “He has lots of friends here. I don’t want him to lose them. “

    The Albany school district has better academic performance than many neighboring school districts, attracting a large number of transfer students, which accounts for about 18 percent of the current student population.

    The district used to open its door wide to transfer students to get more revenue from the state. However, it has been reluctant to accept them as overcrowding becomes a severe problem in its schools and generates increasing complaints from Albany parents in recent years.

    More than a hundred parents living outside of the city are waiting in line hoping to get their children transferred to Albany. Some chose quicker means.

    The parents of 15 students were recently caught by the school district to be cheating on their residence to get their children enrolled in Albany schools. 12 of them live in El Cerrito, and the rest live in Richmond or other neighboring cities, according to Superintendent William Wong.

    Wong’s office sent out 30 letters in recent months to the parents under “reasonable suspicion”, all of whom were given two weeks to prove their Albany residence. Half of them failed to do so.

    The district becomes suspicious of a student’s residence when report cards get undelivered, or it receives tips from concerned parents.

    “A lot of people tell us when they hear somebody doesn’t live here, ” said Wong, who would visit students’ homes to check their residence after he gets a tip.

    The number of parents under suspicion has been increasing. In 2007 the district send out twice as many letters asking parents for residence documents as the previous year.

    Residence screening will be further strengthened in the 2008 academic year. All parents of the students entering the third, sixth and ninth grades will need to provide documents to prove their residence before their children’s enrollment, according to a new district regulation drafted in October.

    Currently the district doesn’t check the residence of returning students. Only parents who register their children for the first time are asked to provide residence documents.

    Some parents have been criticizing the school district for being lax on the issue, and calling for more vigorous measures.

    “They should have started this process last year or even before, in stead of waiting till now to begin it, ” said Dawn Kawamoto, an Albany parent. “I am glad they are finally doing it, even though they are just doing it with three grade levels. I would like them to do it with all the grade levels. “

    Some were angered by the current checking practice.

    Xiaobin Han*, a visiting scholar of University of California at Berkeley who came to live in Albany from China in August, was shocked when she saw a letter brought home by her fourth-grader at Marin Elementary School.

    The letter, sent by the Superintendent’s office, requested her to prove her residence in two weeks, saying that that otherwise her son would be disenrolled, due to her failure to respond to a previous mail sent by the district.

    Han didn’t receive the first letter, which was lost by the post office.

    “Why did they suspect me of cheating? ” said Han, who was still angry that the district hadn’t apologized to her.

    “I understand that somebody thinks it unfair to be singled out, ” said President of Albany School Board Charles Blanchard. “But it is not a big burden for parents who live here to prove their residence. “

    Blanchard also said that the district didn’t know how effective the new screening measure would be in solving its overcrowding problem.

    “I think we just don’t know if the verification process will make a difference at all, ” Blanchard said. “If it consumes excessive staff time, it’s doubtful we could continue it.”

    Click here to read an earlier story on the school district’s overcrowding problem.

    *Xiaobin Han is a housemate of the author.

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