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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.

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.

“The essence of the charter movement is extreme variability,” said Diane Ravitch, an education historian whose latest book is critical of the push for more charters. “There are some excellent charter schools, some terrible charters, and most are in between. On average, charters do not get better academic outcomes than regular [public schools].”

Ravitch noted that the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), commonly referred to as the Nation’s Report Card, has compared the performance of students in charter schools to those in regular public schools since 2003.

“In no assessment—2003, 2005, 2007, 2009—have charters outperformed regular publics, whether one looks at Hispanic students, black students, low-income students, or urban students,” she said.

In her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, Ravitch describes how a Boston Globe survey last year found that ELLs account for nearly one-fifth of all Boston public school students, but in the city’s charters (with only one exception), the ELL population was fewer than 4 percent.

Similarly, a New York Times story from earlier this year reports that New York charter schools lag in enrolling Latinos. Although Latinos are the largest ethnic group in New York City’s public schools, there are nearly twice as many black students as Latinos among the city’s 30,000 charter school students, the Times reports.

Ravitch and other critics argue that one way charter schools have an advantage over traditional public schools, and could do a disservice to the most at-risk students, is that they take students whose parents are the most engaged in their children’s success.

“Parents who care about their kids’ education enough to make the effort to learn about and request a school are the ones whose kids attend charter schools,” writes Sharon Higgins of in an article titled “Charters Exclude the Most Challenging Students.”

“Parents who don’t have it together to pay attention, care, or take action to try to improve their kids’ education do not choose charter schools. Thus, their kids—obviously likely to be the most challenged and challenging—are left in the traditional public schools.”

Note to readers

Don’t forget to visit the Re-imagining Education resource center. Inspiring and engaging today’s 21st-century learners, who have grown up surrounded with digital media and are used to having instant access to information, requires flexible resources that change with students’ needs. When teachers can leverage multiple technologies in a resource-rich classroom—supported by top-notch professional development—students forget they’re in school and instead become excited about real-world applications of the lessons they are learning. Go to:

Re-imagining Education

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