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DAILY SLANT: Charter schools open doors for English language learners

DAILY SLANT: Charter schools open doors for English language learners

By Marcos Crespo and James Merriman

Residents of New York City’s lowest-income neighborhoods know firsthand that opportunities and pathways to the middle class can be few and far in between. Add a language barrier to the cycle of poverty, and it’s easy to see why a high-quality public education is foundational to lifting Latino New Yorkers. The truth is, too many communities with a high concentration of Latinos are among those most in need of the high-quality public school seats that charters provide – and are the ones left in the lurch, with few quality district options. This is precisely why demand by Latino parents has grown by leaps and bounds – and why charters are increasingly concentrated in neighborhoods with both a traditional and growing Latino population.

It’s important to note that not all English language learners speak Spanish and not all families who don’t speak English are immigrants – even by several generations. Despite a certain “globalization” of New York City, many New Yorkers are still culturally and politically isolated, and even marginalized. The city needs to better partner with education leaders to create paths into hard-to-reach communities and make sure they know that choices beyond the status quo are open to them. This includes quality charter seats and high-performing district schools.

One of the first challenges to overcome is raising awareness of charters as an option for all families. This is particularly true with regard to the sector’s outreach to students from non-English speaking households, and makes such outreach all the more urgent. Families from non-English speaking communities often enroll their children in their zoned district school without even knowing that other school options, even those located in their own communities, are available.

While New York City charter schools serve Latino students in comparable numbers to the district (36 percent in charters vs. 41 percent in the district) and serve them well (Latino charter students outperform their district peers 42.1 percent vs. 26.6 percent in math), enrollment of English language learners in charter schools has significantly lagged the district schools. We need to do better, and have heard that message loud and clear from all quarters. Bringing enrollment up to parity is a shared goal. The collaboration between our offices is designed as a first step to eliminate that gap by letting every family in every language know that charter schools are free public schools open to all students.

Opponents of charter schools have made accusations that charters screen out English language learners from enrollment or push them out of their schools. That narrative is false, as study after study has failed to produce a shred of evidence to support the accusation. The truth is simpler. Fewer non-English speaking families have applied to charter schools.

With that in mind, we should be doing all that we can, from raising awareness among non-English-speaking families to encouraging funding for services and support for these families. These measures can include translation services for parents, techniques to boost training and professional development for teachers whose students are English-language learners and better bilingual technology in classrooms.

Over one quarter of charter schools have a formal enrollment preference for English-language learners and individual charter schools like VOICE Charter School in Long Island City, Family Life Academy Charter School in the South Bronx and MESA in Bushwick are among the 25 charters citywide that actually exceed the district on English-language learner enrollment. These schools have helped the sector double its English-language learner populations over the past eight years. Now, it's on us to set and meet a goal of serving every English-language learner family that has or wants a quality school seat in a charter.

The Charter Center’s campaign is the first citywide effort to build on the work these schools have done. The multi-year, multilingual campaign has included everything from ads in subways and non-English-language newspapers to public service announcements on Spanish-language radio from my colleagues and me. Other examples of the Charter Center’s efforts to reach out and raise awareness include charter fairs targeting multilingual audiences in diverse communities, which give parents the opportunity to meet directly with schools, and a simple common online application offered in 10 languages.

Charters do not profess to have all of the answers, and there is a great deal of work to be done to ensure that every English-language learner – no matter their background or ZIP code – has the quality education they want at the school of their choice. But, parent satisfaction and strong results underscore the fact that the charter sector is providing excellent education options in non-English-speaking communities. We hope that policymakers who represent communities where resources are lacking, but opportunity is boundless, will look to the charter sector as willing partners who share their goals of raising achievement, student by student.

Marcos Crespo is a New York state Assemblyman and the chair of the Puerto Rican and Hispanic Task Force. James Merriman is the CEO of the New York City Charter School Center.