Charter schools and English language learners

Charter schools get a lot of accolades, but rarely are they touted for their work with English language learners (ELLs). That’s because in charter-school hot spots like New York City, charters have tended not to serve ELLs as much as they do other students, causing some groups to complain that they’re avoiding some of the most vulnerable and difficult-to-teach children.

(photo courtesy of Rickard Borgkvist)

In fact, 16.5 percent of charter students are English language learners, according to a new report by the Center for American Progress (CAP) and the National Council of La Raza (NCLR). Nationally, nine percent of schoolchildren in the U.S. don’t speak English at home.

Yet ELLs in charters tend to do much worse than their peers in regular public schools, the report’s authors note, citing one national study by Stanford researchers.

So what to do? The report, which is pegged to the Race to the Top competition and the flood of new charter schools it could unleash, says that “educators and policymakers certainly know more about what doesn’t work for Latino and ELL students and less about what does work.”

Perhaps — although one study by Pew that I often cite shows that English language learners do significantly better when they’re not isolated. As the study puts it: “When ELL students attended public schools with at least a minimum threshold number of white students, the gap between the math proficiency scores of white students and ELL students was considerably narrower.”

Diversity is also something that charters don’t always do well. But diversity may not be an option in places like the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, one of the poorest places in the country, where the student population is overwhelmingly Hispanic. (Forty percent of Latinos in the U.S. speak English as a second language.)

The report showcases four charters that appear to be doing quite well with ELLs. Two have student populations that are majority-ELLs. All four schools are majority-minority, meaning minorities make up the majority of the student body. CAP and NCLR hope these schools can point the way to success for other charters – let’s hope so!