Charter Schools Touted as Effective College Prep Option for Latinos and English Language Learners

WASHINGTON – When it comes to preparing Latino students and English Language Learners (ELL) for college and the world of work, look for America’s burgeoning charter school movement to play a critical role in the coming years.

That was a key point made by charter school proponent Peter Groff during a panel discussion Wednesday at the Center or American Progress that highlighted the release of a center report titled “Next Generation Charter Schools: Meeting the Needs of Latinos and English Language Learners.”

“This is a relatively young sector,” said Groff, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, in reference to charter schools.

“But we know that after three years (in a charter school) the more likely (students) are to graduate, the more likely they are to go on to college,” Groff said. “So the longer these schools are able to keep them in their schools, we not only are raising achievement but closing the achievement gap in a lot of different areas.”

Groff, a former Colorado state senator who served briefly in the Obama administration as director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships Center, based his remarks on a recent “Education Next” report that found that students who attend a charter high school are 7 to 15 percentage points more likely to earn a standard diploma than students who attend a traditional public high school, and 8 to 10 percentage points more likely to attend college.

With Groff and other panelists urging support for charter schools, the focus of Wednesday’s talk centered on the new “Next Generation Charter Schools” report released by the D.C.-based Center for American Progress in conjunction with the National Council of La Raza, the 42-year-old Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization that in 2001 began to provide technical assistance and support to a growing network of charter schools that serve Latino students and English Language Learners.

The report, which focused largely on the success of four charter schools located in neighborhoods with high concentrations of Latino students, dealt with effective strategies the schools had implemented to achieve success within the framework of existing state and federal policy regarding charter schools.

One such school was Raul Yzaguirre School for Success in Houston, Texas, which was begun by panelist Richard Farias, founder and president of the Tejano Cente r for Community Concerns Inc.

Farias said the Yzaguirre School sends 100 percent of its graduating seniors to college—a feat accomplished largely by keeping the youths in school at the high school level.

“In our school, we’ve had a 2 percent dropout rate over the last eight years that we’ve had a high school component,” Farias said. “Last year, we had zero percent dropout.”

A former juvenile probation officer who saw the value of conducting home visits, Farias attributed the school’s success in part to having teachers conduct home visits in order to gain a better sense of what’s going on in a student’s life.

“We tend to think children come to school and leave everything behind,” Farias said. “That’s not the case.”

Farias also credited a roughly five-year-old partnership the school established  with Houston Community College that enables the students to earn college credit while still in high school as well as $500 scholarships that each graduate gets from the school’s parent agency, the Tejano Center.

But individual success stories aside, the overall story of charter schools in America is one of mixed results, as acknowledged in the “Next Generation Charter Schools” report, which devotes an entire section to research that has been conducted on charter schools and, where possible, the impact the schools have had on Latinos and English Language Learners.

The studies included, for instance, a Center for Research on Education Outcomes report that found Latino charter school students had significantly lower gains overall in both math and reading compared to their public school peers. However, the same study found that English Language Learners saw significantly higher gains at charter schools in both math and reading than their public school peers.

Farias downplayed the fact that not all charter schools are living up to their promise of doing a better job than public schools.

“The reality is charter schools are still in their infancy as well,” Farias said. “School districts are over 100 years old and still failing our kids.”

Beyond performance issues, panelists said an important feature of charter schools is that they provide for educational autonomy not found in public schools and foster more of a sense of community ownership.

Panelist Monique Davis, executive director of the El Sol Science and Arts Academy in Santa Ana, California, one of the report’s featured schools, said parents who turn to charter schools aren’t concerned with the policy debate surrounding the schools but rather the fact that the schools offer wraparound and other services, such as adult basic education courses to better enable parents to help their children with schoolwork and the like.

“What they know is that they can come to this school and there are a variety of services available to them and, most importantly, that their kids are gong to leave the school with grade level proficiency and prepared to make the move into school and whatever they want to do next, which could be college or whatever else,” Davis said.