October 2014 Newsletter: English Learners in Charter Schools: Key Opportunities for Engagement and Integration

English Learners in Charter Schools: Key Opportunities for Engagement and Integration

English Learner (EL) students are the fastest growing demographic group among school children in the United States, with the number of ELs in K-12 public schools increasing by about 14% from 2002-03 to 2010-11. Research and practice suggest that greater family engagement with schools can be a critical lever for ensuring the academic success of these students.  However, studies also show that EL families’ access to educational options may be constrained by several factors. Such factors include a family’s lack of a social network through which information regarding schools and school quality is exchanged, socioeconomic status, language barriers, and access to transportation. Additionally, family education levels and unfamiliarity with the U.S. school system also present obstacles for charter schools to effectively serve EL families.

Continuing to adapt to the rapidly increasing EL population presents a critical challenge for all public schools, including charter schools. Charter schools must therefore make rigorous efforts to engage EL families to counterbalance these factors. To address this charter sector need, the National Charter School Resource Center recently published two white papers, Engaging English Learner Families in Charter Schools and Legal Guidelines for Educating English Learners in Charter Schools, which provide charter stakeholders and policymakers with examples of successful approaches and policy recommendations for better serving EL families. This newsletter provides an overview of the key recommendations in these two papers.


Improve Recruitment Efforts

ELs are often underrepresented in charter schools. Furthermore, many states forbid weighted lotteries that would make English Learners more likely to attend charter schools. Through a range of marketing and outreach efforts, charter schools have found effective ways to recruit EL students. These include fliers posted in native languages in neighborhoods and community centers with large EL populations, radio advertisements, and social media postings, all in languages understood by EL families. Many charter schools also hold meetings and presentations at public feeder schools and nearby community organizations, such as churches and community centers that serve the EL community, and offer support in filling out applications.


Effectively Communicate with EL Families

Charter schools employ different strategies to reach EL families, such as translation services, including school documents and phone line services, as well as interpreters for school events. Some hire coordinators whose sole function is to enable improved communication with EL families, including maintaining lists of families needing language support, developing written policies that guide staff members in their communication with the EL community, and providing associated training to teachers and other staff. Some charter schools also regularly hold programming tailored to the EL community on topics such as English as a Second Language (ESL) education, parenting, school and classroom norms, and American culture as well as the American school system.

Some schools utilize technologies that can make outreach more affordable, such as using smartphones, social media, or robo-call systems that send out automated phone calls, text messages, and voice messages. Charter schools can also consider using other low-cost agents for outreach, such as recruiting and training volunteers from their own bilingual staff, students, and families to engage with other EL families in the community.


Increase Family Engagement via Extended Services

Charter schools can ensure that the bond between the EL community and the school itself remains strong through helping meet EL families’ greater needs, whether they be cultural, physical, financial, or educational. For example, El Sol Science and Arts Academy in Santa Ana, CA offers a wellness center that provides family services including health care, ESL and citizenship courses, pro bono legal services, and evening adult programming in partnership with a local non-profit. Schools with a diverse EL population can be inclusive to different communities through cultural exchange programs between students of varying backgrounds. Schools can also encourage parent involvement, such as having them serve as liaisons between the school and the community.


Seek Creative Funding Opportunities

Charter schools often lack access to communication and community engagement resources available to district schools and therefore must identify alternative funding streams to support EL activities. Some traditional sources of funding include the operational budget, grants from local foundations/businesses, or Title I or Title III funds. Some schools seek funding through community partnerships. For example, El Sol Sciences and Arts Academy has a partnership with El Sol Family and Children Center (FCLC), which provides integrated health and social services, including English language and job skills training classes to school families and the surrounding community. El Sol did so through a relationship with a local foundation, which funded the pilot for the Center and encouraged community service agencies to continue to provide services.


Forming such partnerships with community organizations or companies that share a school’s interest in serving EL families gives charter schools access to partners who might be willing to subsidize costs in return for sponsorship acknowledgment or access to the school community. Charter schools can also form cooperative ventures with other charter schools to share costs for translation and interpreter services, media outreach and provision of other family services.


Adapt Policy to Reflect EL Needs

Recommendations for Policymakers

Policymakers need to make a focused effort to revise states’ existing legal frameworks that may limit charter schools’ ability to effectively recruit EL students. For example, many states have charter laws that require first-come, first-served policies or random lotteries. In such cases, policymakers can create laws that prioritize the admission of EL students, as well as permit weighted lotteries for disadvantaged groups, such as ELs.


Policymakers can also work to strengthen data reporting requirements to reflect EL student academic growth instead of just meeting proficiency requirements in core subjects. Improving charter school data and accountability reporting on EL students is critical to EL students’ success. Two major studies recently identified significant gaps in the data on ELs in charter schools, including a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) study comparing the enrollment of ELs in charter schools to traditional public schools during the 2011-12 school year, and a 2011 study by the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles that  tried to discover the number of EL students enrolled in charter schools nationally. Both studies found the data lacking and determined that decisive conclusions about EL enrollment in charter schools were difficult to make.


Recommendations for Authorizers

Authorizers also play a critical role when it comes to helping charter schools effectively educate EL students. Authorizers can create performance frameworks for charter schools that emphasize measures of student growth rather than just student proficiency. They can also work with charter schools that have a large number of EL students to create mission-specific goals, plans, and metrics that reflect their student population. Authorizers can additionally review and revise charter application forms to ask new schools how they intend to reach out to EL families, and better serve their needs.



As the number of EL students continues to increase, family engagement will remain critical to successfully educating EL students. Charter school stakeholders and policymakers have the potential to make great strides in improving EL enrollment and meeting their obligations to EL students and families with focused approaches to communication and outreach. Improving charter school data and accountability reporting on EL students is also critical to meeting these obligations. The National Charter School Resource Center’s white papers, Legal Guidelines for Educating English Learners in Charter Schools and Engaging English Learner Families in Charter Schools aim to guide sector leaders towards this goal.


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Program Offers Charter Schools Chance to Build Credit and Facilities

Unlike traditional public schools, charter school facility needs are not always accounted for within part of state and local funding streams.  While a number of states provide some funding for charter school facility needs, many charter schools continue to struggle to obtain the capital necessary to purchase or renovate their facilities. Procuring new facilities or enhancing existing ones is therefore one of the most daunting obstacles a charter school can face.

The Office of Innovation and Improvement’s (OII) Credit Enhancement for Charter School Facilities Program provides charter schools with a unique opportunity to enhance their credit, improving access to lower cost capital for the purchase, construction, and renovation of  facilities.


Credit Enhancement Grantees

In each grant cycle, eligible organizations are awarded funding based on their plan to use federal funds to support  charter school financing needs.  These organizations include non-profit lenders, public finance agencies, and established charter management organizations. Organizations that have been awarded grants in previous years are listed on OII’s awards page for the program. Grantees use the funds to support charter school financing, as described on the OII website, to “use funds to guarantee a loan for the portion of the loan that would otherwise have to be funded with a down payment.”

Build with Purpose, a nonprofit that helps community organizations planning to build or renovate facilities, was awarded a grant in both 2011 and 2013. Christina Oztan, Director of Marketing and Fund Development for Build with Purpose explains that direct funds are not provided through the program to charter schools. Instead, the grantee acts as a co-signer, enabling charter schools to “enhance or improve their attractiveness to lenders by providing a loan or guarantee to the lender.” She acknowledges that accessing funds through this process can be confusing to charter schools.  Grantees such as Build With Purpose can also help schools better navigate the funding process with real estate development organizations and lenders.


What Charter Schools Need to Know

When working with real estate development organizations or lenders that are grantees of the Program, charter schools should realize that these organizations have eligibility requirements laid out in their grant agreement that incentivize which charter schools to assist. Possible priority areas can include high performing charter schools, charter schools with a large percentage of students on free or reduced lunch, or charter schools located in rural areas. Charter schools interested in credit enhancement should also note the Department of Education’s guidelines for permissible use of funds.

Since 2002, OII has provided credit enhancement grants totaling nearly a $250 million dollars. As of 2012, this has resulted in the purchase or improvement of facilities at a total of $3.19 billion dollars, and has helped 466 charter schools, or roughly 8% of all charter schools nationwide.


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State Charter Organizations Collaborating with State Education Agencies

In California and Texas, state education agencies and charter support organizations are collaborating with the goal of facilitating charter schools’ applications for available federal funds, optimizing the distribution of the funds, and providing associated technical assistance to enable new charter schools to be effective early in their lifecycle.

The California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) and the California Department of Education (CDE) have recently participated in such a collaboration. Myrna Castrejon, Senior Vice President of Government Affairs at CCSA, described that the CCSA partnered with CDE “to improve the efficiency and efficacy of the grant administration for the Public Charter Schools Grant Program, which helps new charter schools secure critically important start-up funds.” This grant program is particularly important, as it provides the only public funds available to support California’s charter movement, according to Castrejon. The collaboration’s direct support to charter schools across California has seen great demand, particularly given that 106 charter schools opened in California last year alone.

CCSA collaborated with the CDE to streamline application deadlines, clarify requirements, and train schools on the application process. This assistance helped achieve “a timely disbursement of funds, and a strong process that results in high quality applicants receiving needed support,” says Castrejon. As a result, CDE has gained a greater understanding of charter school needs.  “We have worked with the California Department of Education to streamline application deadlines, clarify requirements and train applicant schools to ensure that there are minimal delays and adjustments needed for applications,” adds Castrejon. Additionally, during the last grant cycle, charter schools held up by appeals during the authorization process have been allowed by CDE to submit applications and enter the process past the initial deadline.

In Texas, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) has initiated a collaboration with the Texas Charter School Association (TCSA) and Education Service Center Region 11, one of 20 regional centers that serve as a liaison between the TEA and local school districts. Now in its second operational year, the Texas Charter School Technical Assistance Network (The Network), provides an extensive support system for charter schools in Texas. The Network’s website explains that the initiative aims to “bring more training and technical support to charters than ever before. By working together to help the schools get set up and maintained properly, charter school officials can focus their energies on academics and innovative education approaches.” The Network provides help on topics such as financial assessment and improvement, academic assessment and improvement, and charter application training and technical assistance. The Network also offers professional development training to school leaders via live webinars and in-person meetings.

According to the Executive Director of TCSA, David Dunn, the collaborative efforts of the organizations under The Network resulted in “very constructive technical assistance” for charter schools in Texas, which serve more students than any other state, except California.  Further, it enabled TCSA to provide its Quality Framework Self-Assessments to charter schools, which in turn has helped members of the collaboration and Texas charter schools themselves get on “much firmer footing” when determining charter school quality and effectiveness in Texas. The Assessments tool aims to support charter school stakeholders in making more informed decisions regarding “strategic planning processes, district/campus improvement plans, comprehensive needs assessments, board reports, annual reports, grant applications.” In the future, The Network plans on building performance frameworks around the implementation of new Texas charter laws.

While the efforts in Texas and California are relatively limited and new, they provide promising evidence of what can be accomplished between the two types of organizations. As evidenced by these collaborations, state education agencies and charter support organizations have opportunities to mutually offer support to their charter schools. Such efforts have the potential to streamline charter application and renewal processes across their states, and enable school leadership to be more effective in their organizational and administrative duties.


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News Clips

Weighted Admissions Lotteries: Will They Reshape Charter Demographics?

New federal regulatory guidance now permits a charter school with a grant through the U.S. Department of Education’s Charter Schools Program to apply to the Department to “weight its lottery to give slightly better chances for admission to all or a subset of educationally disadvantaged students if State law permits the use of weighted lotteries in favor of such students.” Because only some state laws permit the use of weighted lotteries, the guidance only affects charter schools in those states. As states adjust their laws to accommodate this change, the guidance may be able to impact more charter schools in the future.

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New Study Released on Relationship Between Charter Funding and Achievement

In July, the University of Arkansas released a study on the relationship between charter school funding and student achievement. Researchers examined NAEP scores in reading and math in 28 states and examined the schools' per-student funding. The study found that student performance at charter schools is roughly on par with public school performance. However, it claims that since charter schools typically have smaller budgets, "these differences amount to charter schools overall being 40 percent more cost-effective in math and 41 percent more cost effective in reading, compared to traditional public schools."

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Study Indicates High-Performing Charter Schools May Improve Students' Health

A recent report by UCLA and the Rand Corp. explored whether a high-performing charter school reduced the rates of risky health behaviors among low-income minority teenagers. The comparison groups comprised students who entered high-performing charter schools via a random admissions lottery and those students who applied but did not get into a charter and instead attended a local neighborhood school. Students were surveyed about their behavior. According to the findings, the teens at high performing charter schools were less likely to engage in very risky behaviors, including sex without contraception, binge drinking or hard drugs, using drugs at school, and participating in gang activity.

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