May 2012 Newsletter: Charter Schools Face Challenge of English Language Learners

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Charter Schools Face Challenge of English Language Learners

The number of public school students who are defined as English language learners (ELLs)-students who come from a non-English-speaking background and do not have the English proficiency needed for academic success-has increased to an estimated 4.7 million nationwide, according to The Condition of Education 2012, a May 2012 report from the National Center for Education Statistics. ELLs make up about 10 percent of public school enrollment, up from about 8 percent in 2001, and they face many challenges, particularly learning both classroom content and the English language simultaneously. The impact is felt in more states and schools, as they have the responsibility under federal civil rights and education laws to identify ELLs and provide effective education. Following federal investigations, agreements designed to better serve ELLs were announced by the U.S. Department of Education in a May 31, 2012, statement on Dearborn, Michigan; an April 2012 statement on Boston; and an October 2011 statement on Los Angeles. Studies suggest that the overall performance of ELLs lags behind that of other students. For example, data from the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress for eighth graders show wide achievement gaps between ELLs and their non-ELL peers in the percentage of students performing at or above the basic level in reading (Table A-29) and mathematics (Table A-29). Although data about the extent to which charter schools overall serve ELLs varies, the work of specific charter schools shows the ability to effectively serve these students. The theme for this month's National Charter School Resource Center newsletter focuses on efforts to improve education for ELLs. Included is an article examining the start-up of a charter school in Boston that focuses on ELLs and involves collaborating with another charter school. Another article discusses views about instruction by the chief executive officer of a Los Angeles charter school serving ELLs. This newsletter also provides resources to further pursue the topic, including an ongoing series of Resource Center webinars in 2012 that offers insights from leaders in the field about a wide range of topics to help charter schools effectively serve ELLs.

The ELL population includes deep diversity when it comes to students' native languages, backgrounds, and the levels of education they bring when entering schools. More than 400 languages are spoken by ELLs across the country, although about 80 percent come from Spanish-speaking families. In California, ELLs make up nearly a third of public school enrollment, according to The Condition of Education 2012. But the report notes that the percentage of ELLs in public schools was higher in 2010 than 2001 in all but 13 states, with ELLs in 12 states and the District of Columbia making up between 7 percent and 14 percent of enrollment.

The education challenge exists in many other states, even those with relatively few ELLs. The diversity of ELLs is reflected at the Twin Cities International Elementary School, a Minneapolis charter school that opened in 2001 and where 98 percent of the students come from East African or Middle Eastern backgrounds, with native languages including Somali and Arabic. The school was profiled in a Resource Center webinar on May 6, 2012.

The 2001 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known as No Child Left Behind, outlined in Title III the expectations for academic progress and provided for special funding to support ELL education. For example, each year, based on the number of immigrant students and those who have limited English proficiency, the Department of Education (ED) awards formula grants to states, which provide subgrants to local education agencies. The estimated total for these grants nationwide in 2012 is $733.5 million, with California's estimated $161.6 million at the top of the list, according to ED tables. Title III permits consortia to apply for subgrants when the number of ELLs served by a single entity falls short of the minimum required, according to ED's national evaluation of state and local implementation of the law. The evaluation, which includes case studies of 12 school districts, indicates that subgrantees have included charter schools and consortia of charter schools. ED outlines on its website uses for these funds.

In May 2012, ED announced 73 grants totaling about $24.4 million to support professional development for teachers and other educational personnel who work in elementary and secondary school classrooms with English learners. The grants go to higher education institutions that partner with local school districts or state education agencies, projects that sometimes involve charter schools. For example, the grant to San José State University in California will involve at least one charter school, according to Mark K. Felton, Chair of the university's Department of Secondary Education. Felton said in an e-mail to the Resource Center that he hopes other charter schools will participate in the project, which is in its first year. The project, which also involves the Santa Clara County Office of Education, East Side Union High School District, and other partnership schools, will focus on developing "clinical residency teams" at schools, where student teachers from the university work with mentor teachers, according to a summary of the project. As part of the federal grant, which is expected to total about $1.75 million over 5 years, the teams will receive university-based professional development and instructional coaching and gain continuing education credits through the university, according to project leaders. Katya A. Karathanos, the Principal Investigator for the project, said in an interview with the Resource Center that the charter school offers an opportunity to have broad impact. "We can work with a lot of the staff," Karathanos said, adding that there is "opportunity for whole-school change and supporting all the English learner students within the school."

Charter School Partnership Focuses on English Language Learners

In Boston, where public school leaders and the federal government have a new agreement for implementing long-term practices to better serve ELLs, a planned PK-12 charter school focused on ELLs opened in fall 2011 as a result of a partnership between two charter schools. Match Community Day Charter Public School opened in Boston with about 100 students in Grades PK and 2 on its way to a planned total of 700 students for all grades. Match, which already had a high school and a middle school, is collaborating with the Community Day Charter Public School, a PK-8 school in nearby Lawrence, Massachusetts, which has a large ELL population. Both schools have received awards for the achievement of their students. The Match school will draw on the curriculum and the instructional systems at Community Day, and Community Day teachers will be exposed to practices at Match, among other collaborations, according to Min Ji, Match External Relations Coordinator. The Match governing board also will take on two representatives from Community Day, according to the November 8, 2010, application for the school filed with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The application noted that Community Day withdrew its own proposal for a new charter school in Boston in favor of partnering with Match. Match's focus has been improving education for underserved students, and the ELL school grew out of a desire to broaden its scope to reach the growing number of ELLs in the city, Ji said in an interview with the Resource Center. ELLs comprise about 80 percent of the new school's initial enrollment, according to Ji.

The 8 main teachers hired for the school were chosen from about 200 applications, Ji said. ELLs present unique challenges for the school, including communication with parents, which is aided by measures that include translations of materials that are sent home. Although it helps if teachers have second language skills, Ji said that might not matter without having the more vital ingredients of experience and success in helping the underserved student achieve. The best candidates for teaching jobs "won't just say they led student achievement," Ji said. "They'll give us actual numbers."

Performance data play a key role at Community Day Charter Public School. In a Resource Center webinar, Data-Driven Approaches to Eliminate the Achievement Gap for English Language Learners: Learning From the Success of Community Day Charter Public School, school leaders Erin Walsh-Hagan and Pat Teichman described the use of data and instructional supports. The actual teaching in the classroom goes to people like Tiffany Goddard, a 6-year veteran of the school who has taught kindergarten and first grade. Most of the students come from Spanish-speaking families from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. "Some of the ELL strategy people talk about is just good teaching, knowing that you are going to have to teach things in a different way to different students," Goddard said in an interview with the Resource Center. Goddard, who taught English for a year in the Marshall Islands, does not speak Spanish and conducts the class in English. Each classroom has two full-time teachers, which aids gathering students who might be having difficulty into small groups to more intensively cover a lesson. Typically, Goddard's classes have 22 to 25 students. The majority of the students enter Community Day in preschool, where lessons are taught in English. Spanish-speaking teachers also are available. The impact of the preschool experience is evident when students enter kindergarten, according to Goddard. Four of her students in the 2011-12 school year did not come from the preschool, and, she said, "You can definitely see a difference in their language abilities."

Repetition plays a critical role in conveying lessons in all subjects and building vocabulary. "Today, we were talking about microscope . I would say the word and then I would say 'echo,' and all the kids would have to repeat the word. Even if they aren't 100 percent sure what it is, at least they're getting familiar with saying the word, and understanding what it is might come later." Goddard, a doctoral student in education leadership and development at Boston University, said the extensive use of visual aids helps students make the connection, efforts that include having the items on hand and using the computer to find an image. Goddard said she must be mindful not to take for granted students' understanding of commonplace language. "They'll come up to us and say there is no 'paper toilet' in the bathroom," Goddard said. "It's funny, and every year it's the same discussion."

Building Better Instruction Part of Revamp of Los Angeles ELL Efforts

In Los Angeles, boosting professional development to improve instruction was among the tasks highlighted in the 2011 ED announcement of an overhaul of support for ELLs. The training of teachers in effective strategies for ELLs has fallen short in the past but is starting to improve, according to Meg Palisoc, Cofounder and Chief Executive Officer of Synergy Academies, which operates charter schools in South-Central Los Angeles that are ranked among the best in the state and now cover all grades with the addition of a high school in 2011. Palisoc explained her approach to instruction in a Resource Center webinar about the structured immersion model for ELLs. California requires that public school teachers working with ELLs have specific certification. Palisoc said that the high enrollment of ELLs at the school means that all teachers must have the credential.

Palisoc said Synergy schools tweak traditional methods to increase instructional efficiency and effectiveness. She counts herself among those who have toured Finland's famously high-achieving public school system and come away with lessons to apply at home. She said that a key observation for her was noticing that students in Finland were being exposed to bigger words at an earlier age. She said she saw an example of the concept bearing fruit at her school as she observed a fourth-grade class discussion of a character's motivation for a purchase in a novel they were reading. "And a kid said, 'Because it was cheap; it was cheaper to do.' A lot of teachers would say, 'Yeah, that was cheap' and then move on. But our teacher said, 'And another word for cheap is inexpensive.'"

Palisoc said some students come to Synergy Academies with good grades and habits of active oral participation that mask poor reading skills. She recalled one student who "thought she really knew what she was doing, but when you sat down and pulled her aside one on one, she could not read." Reading provides entree to the curriculum, but accessing reality gets an all-important boost from field trips. For example, during an explanation of what to expect on a flight for a field trip to the state capital in Sacramento, a student asked whether she could roll down the window and touch the clouds. "When she reads about an airplane or writes about an airplane, if she has never been on an airplane, she has no idea that it's not the same as a car," Palisoc said. "It teaches them about science and oxygen."

High school teachers working with ELLs face a tougher challenge, especially if the students are far behind, according to Palisoc. High school teachers don't necessarily have the preparation or the mind-set to build the foundations of knowledge that students missed. "When you're a secondary teacher, you're not thinking that. You're thinking, I'm going to be teaching them Shakespeare," Palisoc said. "They have a higher learning curve to overcome and how to integrate foundational reading strategies into their lessons."


Charter School Law Changes in Three States Cover Wide Range

Collaboration among district and charter schools, the transparency of operations, the role of foreign interests, and distribution of federal funds are among the issues covered in changes to charter school laws in South Carolina, Tennessee, and Minnesota in late April and May 2012. Read more.

Four Charter Schools Make U.S. News Top 20 High Schools Nationwide

Four charter schools are among the top 20 high schools in the United States, according to a U.S. News analysis and rankings published on May 8, 2012.

The top 4 charter schools and their national rankings are BASIS Tucson of Arizona, 6; Pacific Collegiate School of Santa Cruz, California, 8; Sturgis Charter Public School of Hyannis, Massachusetts, 15; and Northcoast Preparatory and Performing Arts Academy of Arcata, California, 18. A breakout of the rankings and additional data for these charter schools is provided.

The rankings include data from nearly 22,000 public high schools from 49 states and the District of Columbia, according to U.S. News, which said Nebraska did not report enough data to be included. Nebraska does not have a law allowing charter schools.


June 19-22, 2012: The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools will hold the National Charter Schools Conference 2012 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

June 19, 2012: The Resource Center, in conjunction with the National Charter Schools Conference 2012 in Minneapolis, will hold the Building the Capacity of Charter Schools: Effectively Serving Students With Disabilities conference. There is no registration fee.

October 22-25, 2012: The National Association of Charter School Authorizers will hold the 2012 NACSA Leadership Conference in Memphis, Tennessee.