What schools can learn from charters about teaching English language learners


With a large ELL population, most of the schools take an approach that makes ELLs everyone’s responsibility. This includes supporting teachers’ efforts to obtain certification and additional professional development to instruct ELLs, and training all staff on effective strategies to engage ELL students.

The schools used a variety of formal and informal strategies to create and foster strong lines of communication with students’ parents, even in languages other than English. Translating all school materials, conducting regular home visits, and having bilingual staff are examples.

“Our charter is designed specifically for low-income, at-risk students,” said Farias. “One of the first things we found was how important it was to implement home visits, because teachers need to see and understand where these kids come from. When these kids come to school, they don’t leave their home life and culture behind, which is a mistaken assumption a lot of schools make.”

Farias said his school has received tremendous community support, because it recognizes that kids can be successful if the school acts as a guide but that the community must be involved, too.

Farias’ school also provides summer activities that include parents, as well as mandatory summer school for students who are not proficient. The school currently has a zero-percent dropout rate, and 90 percent of graduates go to college.

Charter laws

According to the CAP report, changes in state policies can support and enhance some of the strategies used at the four highlighted charter schools. These include:

• Re-examining provisions related to enrollment and recruitment. Most states require an open enrollment policy for all charter schools, as well as a lottery process when demand exceeds the number of available slots. The few that do not should consider following this conventional practice, says the report. States also might want to consider monitoring enrollment numbers for certain populations, including ELLs, to ensure that all students have equitable access to charter schools.

“We have both a lottery for kindergarten and a waiting list for the other grades,” said Daviss. “It’s an open-enrollment school, and we try to have as many English-speaking kids as Spanish-language kids, but we can’t control for that.”

• Considering a school’s capacity to effectively serve ELLs in evaluation charter school applications. This requirement is worth considering when the school will be located in a school district or zone that has a significant ELL population, says the report.

• Providing clear guidance in state charter laws that specify equitable access to federal and state categorical stream for charter schools. This includes clear guidance on the state-to-charter allotment for federal Title III dollars and state funding allotted for ELLs, which some charter schools have difficulty accessing.

“Title III funding and other like funding is part of a sector less than 20 years old,” said Groff, “so we’re still working out the kinks. Each state has [its] own statutes, but we don’t want to mandate these, because then it pinches innovation. The short answer is that we’re still figuring this out.”

• Holding schools accountable for progress in closing academic proficiency and college readiness gaps and meeting growth targets. This should be based in disaggregated outcomes across race, ethnicity, and language status, and in instances of multi-campus charter networks, each individual campus should be evaluated for its performance, according to the report.

• Considering the role that charter school autonomy can have on the education of ELLs and Latinos. According to the report, the level of autonomy afforded to charters has made it possible for school leaders and educators to flexibly mold their school models in ways that have demonstrated strong results for ELLs and Latinos, including using native-language instruction programs.

“Autonomy is the key to success,” said Groff. “Lots of regulation for charters would hinder innovation.”

Along with these tips and advice, the report also details the culture of ELLs and Latinos in schools and the U.S., and it provides white paper snapshots of each of the four highlighted schools.

Critics respond

While the four charter schools profiled in the CAP report have had clear success in teaching ELLs and Latino students, critics of the charter school movement note that charter schools in general have had mixed results—and in many communities, their enrollment doesn’t fairly reflect the overall population of ELL students.

Meris Stansbury

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