Refugee Comes So Far, But Diploma Just Out Of Reach

May 22, 1991|By Donna E. Boller | Donna E. Boller,Staff writer

Rick Long Khem will end his school career in June with a fistful of awards, but he will not graduate and may not be allowed his moment onthe stage with the other members of the Class of 1991.

Khem, a 21-year-old Cambodian and the adopted son of Herbert "H" and Ellen Longof Savage, is unique. He is the only student in his English teacher's memory to enter the county school system's English for Speakers of Other Languages program illiterate in his native language.

He was 17 when he started school in Maryland. Khem worked hard, but it was impossible for him to learn a new language

and catch up on 11 years of missed schooling -- taught in that language -- in fouryears. Now that he is 21, the state of Maryland's legal responsibility for his education is over.

"He just ran out of time," said ESOLteacher Deborah Doyle. "Even knowing he's not graduating, he's thereevery day. He could easily have dropped out, he could have said, 'I'm not getting a diploma anyway,' but he's so thirsty for the knowledge."

The county school system isn't equipped to deal with someone like Khem, who has received awards both for his skill as a carpentry student at the School of Technology and for his achievements in the ESOL program.

The school system's rules bar him from participating in graduation ceremonies because he cannot qualify for a diploma. To earn a diploma, a Maryland student must pass the state citizenship, writing, reading and mathematics tests. Khem has passed only the mathematics test.

School officials initially told Mrs. Long that her soncould not take part in graduation or any end-of-year ceremonies, then said he could receive his awards at school assemblies and attend the prom. But he remains barred from graduation ceremony on June 5.

Mr. and Mrs. Long appealed to the county school board, arguing that Khem's inability to speak English should be considered a handicap thatwould allow him to qualify for a certificate of attendance. Special education students who cannot meet graduation requirements receive certificates of attendance.

School officials agreed to test Khem to see if he qualifies to be declared a special education student. A decision is expected tomorrow.

Khem, a cheerful, upbeat man, is philosophical about the situation. "One thing I don't want, I don't get mad. Because myself, if they give it (a certificate) to me, good, 'Thank you.' If they don't, what can I do?" he says.

Khem said he is waiting until he leaves school to decide if he will attempt to earn a high school equivalency diploma through Howard Community College.

At the School of Technology awards assembly last week, Khem received avocational achievement award, a $500 grant for carpentry tools, the HCST booster award, work experience recognition, the principal's awards for carpentry and ESOL, and an ESOL achievement award.

School officials at Hammond High, Khem's home school, will not release information on awards until after the school's June 3 awards assembly.

The conditions of Khem's life never allowed much time for school. He was 3 when his mother died, 5 when the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penhand began forcing people into the countryside. It was the start of atime of terror, when more than 1 million Cambodians would die from executions, starvation and forced labor.

Khem's father fled with the boy to Vietnam, where they remained for eight years, eking out a living. In 1983, they returned to Cambodia. There, Khem attended schoolfor a year before his father sent him to Thailand, where he lived with his cousins.

Khem's older brother, Mony Saren Khem, had managedto get from a Thai refugee camp to the United States and would try to arrange immigration for Rick. It took three years, but with the help of Associated Catholic Charities, Rick eventually obtained the necessary documents and joined his brother, who had settled in Beltsville.

Rick came to Prince George's County schools speaking only Khmer."It's hard," he says. "You go into high school and you don't know how to speak English, it makes you a headache."

He was placed in Ellen Long's special education class at High Point High School. She noticed that Rick seemed lonely, since his

brother worked long hours. She began bringing him home to share afternoons and evenings with herhusband and son Joshua, now 19, and daughter Eliza, now 16. Within two years, the Longs had adopted him.

"He's certainly enriched our lives by just being an up kind of person," she says. Rick has always been happy to help around the house, and Mrs. Long says he's been through "the normal teen kinds of things" like learning to drive and hanging on the phone.

Khem's father remains in Cambodia. Letters haveto be hand-carried across the Thai border and hand-carried back, butin the letters that get through his father reports that he is well and getting along all right.

Khem says he might like to visit his family someday but has no desire to return to Cambodia to live. If he were in Cambodia, his most likely occupation would be selling things along the road, he says. "It's kind of tough for living (there)."

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