Charter proposals are found lacking

Group questions commitment to English learners

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / December 20, 2010

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Nearly all the proposals for new charter schools statewide fall short in one key area — a strong commitment to serve students who lack fluency in English, according to research by a national organization that represents linguistic minorities.

Most of the 23 applications failed to say whether the school would follow state guidelines for English language learner programs and few discussed strategies to recruit a specified number of these students, according to findings by Multicultural Education Training & Advocacy, which has offices in Somerville.

The applications are the first to be filed under a state law passed this year that requires new charter schools in the lowest-performing school districts to make efforts to recruit, instruct, and retain students who lack fluency in English.

“It’s distressing to us that so many applicants would not address many of the legal requirements that the Legislature passed last January,’’ said Roger L. Rice, the organization’s codirector.

Rice placed much of the blame on the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which he said failed to update all charter school materials to reflect the new legal requirements, such as a handbook that details procedures for opening charter schools.

He requested that the department ask the applicants to submit addendums to shore up their commitments to follow the law and to serve English language learners regardless of their level of fluency, from those who can speak only a few words of English to those on the cusp of fluency.

In a statement, JC Considine, an education department spokesman, said the department’s regulations preclude them from asking applicants to make major revisions to a final proposal.

“We are receiving comments on many of the applicant groups, and to the extent that questions are raised that we need to pursue, we can raise questions with the applicant groups during the interview process,’’ Considine said.

State officials hope that charter schools — independently run public institutions that are supposed to provide innovative educational programs — can help accelerate the academic gains of English language learners. But since charter schools began opening in Massachusetts in the mid-1990s, few have served large populations of these students, helping to give rise among critics that charter schools prefer students who may be more academically capable. Charter schools deny this assertion.

The lack of attention to English language learners was glaring in many of the 15 applications for new charter schools in Boston, according to the legal-service agency, which was assisted in its research by Boston College Law School’s Latin American Law Students Association.

The finding was troubling, Rice said, because English language learners had long been denied equal educational opportunities in the Boston public schools, which entered into an agreement this fall with the US Education and Justice departments to bring its programs into compliance with federal civil rights laws and state educational guidelines.

Rice laid out his concerns in a memorandum he sent to Mitchell Chester, the state commissioner of elementary and secondary education. He also forwarded copies to legislators and the Education and Justice departments.

Charter school applicants disputed the analysis, saying they are committed to educating more English language learners.

Edward Brooke Charter School in Roslindale, which is hoping to open three additional campuses, said it is targeting one school for East Boston or Chelsea specifically because those neighborhoods have high concentrations of immigrant families.

It hopes that its other proposed campuses will prove popular among immigrant families in other parts of the city. The school has published informational material about its programs in four languages — English, Spanish, Vietnamese, and Haitian Creole — and is visiting neighborhoods to talk with immigrant and non-immigrant families.

“We really are hoping to serve more English language learners,’’ said Kimberly Steadman, a co-director at Edward Brooke.

Excel Academy Charter School in East Boston echoed a similar sentiment in talking about its desire to open a second campus in immigrant-rich Chelsea. It also has begun recruitment efforts using materials printed in a variety of languages.

Earlier this year, charter schools canvassed Boston in pursuit of more English language learners to enroll in their schools. However, charter schools cannot guarantee any of their seats to those students because state law requires charter schools to admit students through a lottery.

The analysis did include positives about some parts of various applications. Rice, for instance, gave the Brooke School credit for mapping out a plan to enroll English language learners with varying degrees of fluency that is reflective of the city.

He also appreciated that MATCH Charter School in Boston, which wants to open a second school that caters to English-language learners but does not have much experience with those students, has decided to partner with Community Day in Lawrence, a charter school that specializes in teaching English-language learners.

“We responded to the clear request of the governor, mayor, and the superintendent to serve more English-language learners,’’ said Alan Safran, MATCH’s executive director.

James Vaznis can be reached at