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Would-be student seeks waiver to attend classes By: Leah Fabel Examiner Staff Writer 04/19/09 8:22

Would-be student seeks waiver to attend classes

By: Leah Fabel Examiner Staff Writer 04/19/09 8:22 PM EDT

Most 14-year-olds would welcome the chance to take a leave from middle school, but for Jeff Sukkasem it’s been two long, miserable years.

After Jeff bounced from California to his parents’ native Thailand, his mother sent him to Montgomery County in 2007 to live with family friends. She was recently divorced, and out of a job, and believed that her son, a U.S. citizen, would thrive stateside.

that her son, a U.S. citizen, would thrive stateside. Jeff Sukkasem ( Matthew A. Roth/For The

Jeff Sukkasem (Matthew A. Roth/For The Examiner)

But now, the would-be eighth-grader spends his days educating himself at a Montgomery County library, the result of a policy forbidding students to attend public school when their parents don’t live in the district.

“Lately, I’ve been trying to read about math and Algebra, and about outer space,” he said. He calls novels “storybooks” and said his favorites were the teen thriller “Twilight” and the “Harry Potter” series.

Exceptions to the rule exist for families who can provide a reason — abandoned students, for example, or those whose parents live elsewhere because of a military deployment. But Jeff, who is still in contact with his parents, didn’t qualify.

In 2008, the school system had 725 requests for free enrollment from out-of-county students. Each year, on average, about 65 requests are granted. Across the Potomac in Fairfax County, where Virginia law requires more leniency, 339 requests resulted in 329 approvals.

“The regulations are the regulations,” said Steve Zagami, director of student services for the 140,000-student Montgomery school district. He said that if it appeared the student was moved to the county solely for an education, the request is turned down and parents are offered the option to pay a $12,000 tuition or educate their child elsewhere.

“This is a wonderful school system — we’d be very attractive to many families” if the policy weren’t strictly enforced, Zagami said. But for Jeff, whose mother lacks the funds to return him home and whose legal guardian lacks the funds to pay private tuition, it has meant two years outside the classroom.

He longs for friendships, he said, and often stays awake at night, anxious about how far he’s falling behind.

“It’s very frustrating for both of us,” said Kanya Amornpimonkul, Jeff’s guardian, who makes about $30,000 per year working night shifts at a hotel.

“My English is poor, I was never in school here; I don’t know what books an eighth-grader is supposed to read, or what is online, or what is for free,” she said.

State law leaves it to districts to determine enrollment policies, and Maryland state Sen. Nancy King, D-Montgomery, though sympathetic to Jeff’s case, said she believed that’s where the decision belongs.

“Once we open that door, it’s hard to know where to stop, especially in fiscal times like we’re in now,” she said, adding that Montgomery’s proximity to the poorly performing District and Prince George’s County schools required it to keep borders tight.

Pat Hoover, a Rockville-based lawyer, is working with the family to appeal the school system’s decision.

“He’s here, he’s not going anywhere, and he’s not being educated,” he said. “At some point he should be grandfathered in — something.”