Charter schools are especially good for ELL students

ByEmily DeRuy

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Charter schools, it turns out, are doing a better job of educating English-language learners than traditional public schools. That’s a bright spot in an otherwise bleak report on Texas charters.

And that’s an interesting finding because, as the number of English-language learners in the United States, and in Texas specifically, has climbed so have the theories about how best to serve these students. According to government data, these students made up more than 9 percent of all students nationally in 2012 and more than 15 percent of the student body in Texas.

The report, from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, finds that English-language learners in charter schools come away with 50 more days of learning in reading and 22 in math compared with their peers in traditional public schools. Children living in poverty, particularly Latino students, also showed greater gains at charters.

Certainly, the controversial charter model is no cure-all, and the overall report paints a relatively somber picture of charter schools in Texas. For example, Texas charter students are at a disadvantage that equals 14 fewer days of learning in reading in a 180-day school year and 29 fewer days in math. But, given that about one in every six Texas students is an English-language learner, it’s worth examining what charters are doing that benefits the students who civil rights advocates say are too often left behind.

Steve Mancini, director of public affairs for the Knowledge is Power Program charter schools, better known by the acronym KIPP, says some of the gain likely has to do with an extended learning day. Kids at KIPP charters, which started two decades ago in Texas, literally spend more hours learning. The schools—there are now 162 across the country—are also “run locally,” he said, meaning principals and teachers have the ability to tailor programs to their students, so teachers and administrators have greater flexibility than some of their traditional public-school counterparts.

That’s one of the criticisms often lobbed at charter schools—that they operate with more freedom from the bureaucracy that bogs down public schools while pulling in federal dollars. But advocates like Mancini point out that when it works, innovation happens; and when it doesn’t, charters in Texas are closed. Last year, the state said it would shut down more than a dozen charter-school operators that did not meet academic standards laid out in a 2013 law.

Seth Winick, a spokesperson for the Texas Charter School Association, isn’t completely sure what’s working, but he says it likely has to do with how intensely focused charters are on serving English-language learners, students in poverty, and other underserved populations.

That creates a built-in incentive for charters to provide the scaffolding that helps their students succeed. Agree or not, KIPP defines success as getting kids to and through college, and they offer services many traditional public schools don’t to help students get a degree.

Freddy Gonzalez, who previously served as the principal of KIPP Austin College Prep and now works as the KIPP Foundation’s chief learning officer, said the schools incorporate literacy into every class, including science and math. They check in with graduates toward the end of summer to make sure they’re all set to show up to the first day of college. They get kids tutors and help alumni find summer internships. KIPP has partnerships with 70 universities to help students achieve what it calls “aspirational goals.”

Those are things Gonzalez didn’t get as a student. Upon arriving at Brown University from South Texas, he thought he was ready for college. Reality quickly set in, and he realized he “didn’t know how to study like everybody else.”

“I wanted to help students not be me in college,” he said, of his decision to join KIPP.

KIPP also collects and analyzes lots of data on subgroups of students, including English-language learners, as a diagnostic tool. And they post the results online.

“Freedom for accountability,” Mancini said, invoking a common phrase.

At a time of great division over accountability measures and what they should look like, many successful charter networks have backed testing and other assessments as a critical tool for gauging progress.

Rich Harrison, chief academic officer for Uplift Education, a charter network that serves 14,000 students in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, says his charters focus on English-language learners as a priority. Like KIPP, Uplift schools serve a disproportionate percentage of such students. At many schools in both networks, the figure is above 40 percent, more than double the state average.

The schools, Harrison said, are required to have an hour-long enrichment block of “flexible programming,” where students who are low-performing or high-performing meet in small groups. And like KIPP, Uplift “aggressively” looks at data points by demographic group, Harrison said.

Both networks have seen a steady increase in English-language learners.

At KIPP, close to two-thirds of the students have traditionally been African-American, while most of the other third has been Latino. But, Mancini said, that ratio is changing, and the number of Latino students, many of them English-language learners, is increasing.

Seth Winick, a spokesperson for the Texas Charter School Association, isn’t completely sure what’s working, but he says it likely has to do with how intensely focused charters are on serving English-language learners, students in poverty, and other underserved populations.

But, he cautioned, it’s not like there’s a “silver bullet.”

It’s also worth pointing out that charters, while growing in Texas, serve a fraction of the students traditional public schools educate each year. There were more than 8,000 public schools in the state, and only 580 charters, as of the 2011-2012 school year (the time frame the Stanford study examined).

The criticism that some bad charter schools end up wasting already-tight school-system budgets is a fair one. Yet the numbers indicate that the schools are filling a need when it comes to the English-language-learner population and helping them make gains their public-school peers aren’t seeing yet.