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English Language Learner Charter Schools

A rise in the Hispanic population in the United States has brought more charter schools focusing just on ELLs—some with great success
Students play in the Camino Nuevo Charter Academy's Burlington Avenue campus courtyard

In districts with Hispanic populations, English language learning is a priority, particularly in the elementary grades, which many students enter still speaking Spanish as their primary language. In affiliation with the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), a private, non-profit organization focused on reducing poverty and discrimination and improving opportunity for Hispanic Americans, about 100 community-based charter schools serve districts like these across the United States.

None of the schools serves only English language learners (ELLs); each has "a different proportion" of them, says Delia Pompa, NCLR's vice president for education, since many students who enter the schools already have learned English, often through their families that have been living in the country for several generations.

But ELLs represent "a significant portion of the Latino student population," according to a statistical brief—"Missing Out: Latino Students in America's Schools"—that NCLR issued last year. It reported that 39 percent of all Latino children were ELLs in the nation's public schools in 2005 and nearly 80 percent of ELL students were Hispanic.

Some of the schools operate under NCLR's Charter School Development Initiative, which the organization launched in 2001 as a response to the "increasingly alarming educational outcomes" of Latino students at that time. Others function as part of NCLR's Early College Project, created in 2002 to increase high school and college graduation rates for Latinos.

With President Barack Obama's initiative to get states to remove any limits on the number of new charter schools while shutting down ineffective ones, the Hispanic schools are drawing increased interest. Here are three case studies of schools that serve mainly ELL students and that have seen some noteworthy success, despite some drawbacks.

Camino Nuevo Charter Academy, Los Angeles, Calif.

The MacArthur Park neighborhood west of downtown Los Angeles is one of the poorest and most densely populated neighborhoods in the city. Most of its residents are immigrants from Mexico and Central America. In 2000, Pueblo Nuevo Development, a nonprofit community development corporation in MacArthur Park, founded Camino Nuevo Charter Academy as part of NCLR's Charter School Development Initiative. It opened with two K5 campuses, followed by two middle school campuses the next year and Camino Nuevo High School in 2004.

Now it is a network of schools serving more than 1,500 students from preschool through grade 12. Ninety-eight percent of its students qualify for free and reduced-price meals, based on their household size and income under state eligibility guidelines, and ELLs are "the core of our student population," representing more than 90 percent of entering students every year, says Ana Ponce, the academy's executive director and CEO. "We build our instructional program on that foundation," she says.

But Camino Nuevo's mission is broader than teaching ELLs. As stated in its literature, it is "to educate students in a college preparatory program to be literate, critical thinkers and independent problem solvers who are agents of social change."

Camino Nuevo does it by carefully tracking data on each student's progress. "We are data-driven. We identify what's working and the gaps where things are not working and then try to fix them," Ponce says. She cites a difference in third-grade test scores that administrators noticed between the 2007-2008 and 2008-2009 school years.

As they tried to identify the reason for the gap, they looked at differences between the third-grade teachers in the two years. "It came down to teacher quality," Ponce says, and so administrators focused on coaching the teacher who had produced the lower scores.

She explains that when a teacher needs support, the principal or a designee meets with the teacher to review the teacher's techniques and lesson plans as well as students' work, and also observes the teacher's classroom at least once a week. In addition, quarterly benchmark assessments are closely reviewed for each of the teacher's students.

Camino Nuevo helps parents play an important role in their children's learning. A Latino family literacy program provides parents of younger students skills for reading with their children at home and talking with them about what they are reading in their classrooms. A parent coordinator on every campus works with parents to keep them engaged. "We don't want parents to just show up. We want them to be advocates for their children's education, not just in terms of what teacher they get but in terms of preparing them for the option to go to college," Ponce declares.

The academy is operating with a budget this academic year of $14.5 million, down from $15.6 million last year. "We are funded like any other public school, and clearly we are being impacted by the downturn in the economy," Ponce explains. That also is impacting grants Camino Nuevo receives from private foundations.

Last year, it received more than $1 million in grants but is anticipating probably no more than $400,000 this year, Ponce says. But the school "does not rely on private fund-raising to operate our programs and therefore has not been significantly impacted by the drop in private funding," she says.

Camino Nuevo's rigorous academic approach produced a 97 percent graduation rate for its first high school graduating class in 2008. In addition, all the graduates went to college, with 62 percent admitted to four-year institutions and the rest to community colleges.

With an academic performance index (API) of 759 out of a possible 900, the high school outperformed the statewide API average of 702 and the Los Angeles Unified School District API average of 683. The API, the cornerstone of California's Public Schools Accountability Act of 1999, measures the academic performance and growth of the state's schools. "We are demonstrating that these kids have what it takes to perform at high levels, and we are pushing the system to compete with us," Ponce says.

Raul Yzaguirre Charter School for Success, Houston, Texas

To address what it saw as inequities and failures in the public school system for Hispanic children, the Tejano Center for Community Concerns in Houston, Texas, led by Richard R. Farias, its founder, established the Raul Yzaguirre School for Success in 1996 as an open-enrollment institution, one of the first 20 charter schools approved by the state board of education. The Tejano Center was created four years earlier to improve opportunities for Hispanic children and their families through housing and community development initiatives, as well as education, social and health services.

The Panther Batallion Drumline at Raul Yzaguirre School for Success in Houston performs at a Houston Texans football game half-time show in 2008.

Starting with 100 seventh- and eighth-graders, the school has grown to 856 pre-K through 12th-grade students at campuses in Houston and Brownsville. Whatever the grade level, Raul Yzaguirre's mission as part of NCLR's Charter School Development Initiative is clear: "We are a college-prep charter school," says Farias, who serves as superintendent of the school. He points out that its mission begins with elementary school students, who are taken on visits to local colleges and universities. "We are getting them to think about college already," Farias says.

Among the school's demographics, 96 percent of students are economically disadvantaged and 56 percent have limited English proficiency. Some are already one or more grade levels behind when they enter Raul Yzaguirre. The school seeks to bring them all up to speed and on a track for college with individualized education plans, a 20-to-1 student-teacher ratio, and required student uniforms, which families buy on their own but with financial support from the school if they need it.

The uniform requirement is "an economic factor, more than anything," says Maria Barrientos, director of curriculum and instruction and principal of the primary academy. "It's cheaper for parents to buy uniforms for their kids than to feel that they have to go out and buy clothing so the students can wear whatever they want and be in style," she maintains.

The uniforms also enhance students' safety and security, because they help school staff keep an eye on students when they are on field trips, she adds.

Raul Yzaguirre is the first charter school in Texas to have a JROTC program. Farias, who has a background in juvenile justice, considers this important because "it instills respect and obedience and keeps our kids out of trouble. If I can keep them out of trouble, I can educate them."

Most Raul Yzaguirre pre-K students speak no English when they enter the school. At first, through a transitional bilingual program, they start out speaking mostly their primary language and increase their English as they moved from grade to grade. This year, the school started a different dual language program in pre-K through grade 2, teaching half in English and half in Spanish. "We believe that is particularly important in Texas," Farias says, because bilingualism is common in Texas.

In the new program, subjects like social studies, science and math are taught in English on certain days, while reading, language arts and writing are taught in Spanish. On other days, the subjects and languages are reversed. Also on certain days, there is a "language of the day," sometimes Spanish, sometimes English. "When students line up or go to the cafeteria, the entire school family, including teachers and staff, will speak to them in one language or the other, to help them become more familiar with English" by understanding the English equivalent of words familiar to them in Spanish, Barrientos explains.

But Raul Yzaguirre still uses the transitional model in grades 3-5 for students who enter the school at those levels not speaking any English. "That might be their first year of schooling in the United States," Barrientos says. By the time they get to fifth grade, most students move into all-English classrooms, but some stay in a bilingual program.

After fifth grade, the school uses test data to monitor students' progress in either English or Spanish and continues bilingual instruction for those who need it, Barrientos says.

In measurements of Raul Yzaguirre's success, Farias points out that 85 percent of its graduates go to college and that the school's dropout rate in 2008-2009 was 1 percent. "We're extremely proud of that, because these are essentially high-risk kids who come from the regular public schools," he says.

He credits the low dropout rate partly to the involvement of parents, with more than 90 percent of them providing at least 36 hours of service in school-related activities during the academic year. Many also participate in an adult evening education program that includes basic computer training and citizenship classes.

With an annual budget of about $10 million, Raul Yzaguirre raises an average of $1.5 million annually from private sources such as corporations and foundations, Farias reports. "We have grown tremendously over the years. We have a good thing going on here, and we are going to continue to grow and prosper," he declares.

Dolores Huerta Preparatory High School, Pueblo, Colo.

By the time most students enter Dolores Huerta Preparatory High School (DHPH) in Pueblo, Colo., they no longer are ELLs, if they ever were in the first place. Even though 80 percent of the students are of Hispanic heritage, most students are probably fourth-generation or earlier, says Jason Guerrero, chief financial officer of the Cesar Chavez School Network, which includes the high school. The few students who were ELLs before coming to DHPH learned English in the K8 Cesar Chavez Academy, a feeder school for DHPH, says Rich Mestas, DHPH's principal.

Sophomore students at Dolores Huerta Preparatory High School sit in a general science class.

A husband-and-wife team, Lawrence and Annette Hernandez, along with community activists, founded the Cesar Chavez Academy in 2000 for underserved Latino students in Pueblo, a community characterized by poverty. They established the high school two years later as part of the school network, which now includes other schools in Colorado. About two-thirds of DHPH students are economically disadvantaged, but there is a degree of socio-economic diversity. Some parents hold PhDs, Mestas says.

Although it is part of NCLR's Early College Project, DHPH considers college as only a stepping-stone for its students on a path to what it considers a more significant goal: a career. "We are committed to career preparation. That is the carrot we dangle out there for our students," asserts Mestas. "The mistake that has always been made is emphasizing ‘college, college, college,' but that's not tangible for our students. What's tangible is a career," he explains.

"We tell them that a career is different from a job," Mestas says. "A job is something where you have to go to work and you're looking at the clock. A career is something you get up for every morning and you're passionate about and you love what you do and you can't believe you get paid to do it. It's really important to establish that for the students so they can understand the relevance of their education."

That's what sets DHPH, with 443 students this year, apart from a traditional high school, Mestas declares. "They go to classes geared toward their careers, and they understand from day one what it's all about here," he says.

In ninth grade students begin preparations not just for college—"how to study, take notes, manage your time, advocate for yourself with your professors"—but also for the workplace, by developing attitudes such as a strong work ethic and by learning skills such as how to dress for a job interview, Mestas says. Another commitment DHPH has made is to give its students a head start into college by providing college-level courses in their junior and senior years through partnerships with Pueblo Community College and Colorado State University-Pueblo.

Students graduate with both a high school diploma and an associate degree, which gives them credits they can transfer to a four-year institution. Also, eighth-grade honors students at Cesar Chavez Academy can take courses at DHPH and begin earning their high school credits early.

Mestas stresses that while educating the students, "we also have to educate the parents about why college is so important."

Through its Parent Academy, DHPH instructs parents how to submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and to determine if they qualify for other scholarship opportunities. "Parents don't understand why they have to release financial information. You'd be surprised how many parents are reluctant to do that," Mestas says. "We try to eliminate all barriers for them so that they understand our program and embrace it. They are the key piece to continuing their kids' success."

Meanwhile, last October, the board of the Cesar Chavez School Network fired the Hernandez couple, who were the chief executive officer and chief operating officer. According to local news reports, they were dismissed in part over allegations of financial mismanagement and questions about students' test scores on the Colorado Student Assessment Program.

The Colorado Department of Education subsequently audited the testing procedures used at Cesar Chavez Academy and reported in December that it found "extremely high rates of extra time accommodation" for students on tests from 2007 through 2009.

In another development, a projected $1.5 million budget deficit for the two charter schools and the network that was "absolutely" related to the Hernandezes' management caused the boards of the schools and the network to cut $974,000 from their budgets in November, according to Dennis Feuerstein, board president of the academy and DHPH. The cuts at the high school included an athletics instructor and six noninstructional personnel, funding for athletic uniforms, reduction of service contracts, limits on the hours the building would be open, and elimination of nonessential spending on cell phone use and travel.

The NCLR also dropped a $20,000 grant to DHPH but restored it in December, says Feuerstein, because "we told them we were fixing the problems," which are having no impact on school operations. "We're getting things in order, and it's business as usual. We're still in pretty darned good shape," Feuerstein insists.

In the end, the way to look at these charter schools for ELLs is to "see what is happening to some of those kids," says Pompa of NCLR. "You see low dropout rates and good academic growth and performance," which, NCLR hopes, will lead the schools' graduates to successful college experiences and careers.

Alan Dessoff is a contributing writer for District Administration.