What schools can learn from charters about teaching English language learners

Dual language learning is considered a unique characteristic for some charters.
Dual-language learning is considered a unique characteristic for some charters.

As charter schools become testing grounds for innovative approaches to education, many of these schools with high English language learner (ELL) and Latino enrollments are identifying best practices for how to achieve proficiency with these students. The most important advice: Involve the community and offer after-school activities.

“Next Generation Charter Schools: Meeting the Needs of Latinos and English Language Learners,” a new report released by the Center for American Progress (CAP), details how charter schools can become models for all schools that serve a high number of ELL and Latino students.

The report comes as the Obama administration has encouraged states to support the expansion of high-quality charter schools by giving states that lift caps on new charters a chance to win grants from its Race to the Top competition. But even as the administration pushes for more charter schools, many critics are questioning whether the schools really are any more effective than traditional public schools.

According to Melissa Lazarin, associate director for education policy at CAP and co-author of the report, Latinos already have a large presence in many charter schools, specifically those located in California, Arizona, Texas, and Florida.

“Eighty percent of ELLs are Spanish-speaking, and 40 percent of Latino students are ELLs,” said Lazarin. “There are also 5 million ELLs in preK through 12, with 10 percent enrolled in public schools. The most recent Schools and Staffing Survey also suggests that one quarter, or 23.8 percent, of charter school students are Latino. These numbers are large and must be addressed.”

Peter Groff, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said he hopes the report will help other schools to “replicate what works with ELLs in both charters and public schools.”

“There isn’t a whole lot of research at this point, since charters are still relatively new, but we do know that after just three years in charter schools, more students are likely to graduate and go to college,” said Groff. “From an administration standpoint, charter schools are seen as examples of how you can build achievement from the ground up.”

Effective strategies

The report lists a few strategies that top-performing ELL and Latino-based charters—El Sol Science and Arts Academy in Santa Ana, Calif.; the Raul Yzaguirre School for Success in Houston; YES Prep Gulfton in Houston; and International Charter School in Pawtucket, R.I.—are using.

In general, these schools establish high expectations for all students during the hiring process to ensure that teaching staff enter the classroom with these expectations.

The schools also accelerate the pace at which ELLs engage with grade-level content, and all four schools stress the importance of teaching a second language while simultaneously delivering core academic content.

For Monique Daviss, executive director of El Sol Science and Arts Academy, dual-language instruction is considered a unique characteristic that other schools don’t offer.

Daviss’ school has students that are proficient in both English and Spanish by the fourth grade. Currently, students are 95-percent proficient in both languages.

“While at first it can be intimidating for non-ELL parents to put their child in this school, they also know that this school offers a variety of services and has a high percentage of graduation,” she said.

Daviss explained that all students must take the standardized test in English in second grade, in accordance with California standards.

The schools also work to expand learning time opportunities, on the premise that more learning time can enable individualized or small-group instruction to target ELL students’ learning gaps.

Richard Farias, superintendent of Raul Yzaguirre School for Success and founder, president, and CEO of the Tejano Center for Community Concerns, said that by offering school until 6 p.m., students are not getting into trouble.

“Nine hundred and fifty students are currently enrolled in the school, and we have a waiting list of 400. One of the biggest reasons parents want to enroll their child is because they know we are a safe school,” he said.

“Four hundred students stay at school until 6 p.m.,” said Daviss of El Sol. “Then 300 adults attend our adult education classes from 6 to 9 p.m. These classes are like those offered at a community college.”

Farias’ school also offers evening classes for adults, because, he says, “many adults in these communities are illiterate and can’t help their kids at home with their homework.”

Classes for adults include citizenship, language, and computer skills.

Meris Stansbury

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