Magazine Feature

Immigrant Charter Schools: A Better Choice?

Charter schools tailored to the needs of newly arrived immigrants are getting a lot of attention. But are they working? And will they lead to a new kind of segregation?
Illustration by Anita Kunz

Third-grader Jaime of Denver, Colorado, was having a hard time concentrating in school. The son of Mexican immigrants, he had learned to speak English perfectly in his dual-language public school, but reading and writing was another story.

“The teaching method wasn’t working for him,” said Jaime’s mother, Xochitl Rico. She was anxious to change schools, but, due to the economy, could not afford to spend extra money on the English tutoring he would need.

“I had to choose between paying for health insurance and tutoring,” Rico said.

A friend told her about Cesar Chavez Academy, a new tuition-free charter school where the majority of students are of Hispanic origin. She enrolled Jaime in the fourth-grade class and his younger brother into the first grade. Within months, she said, the difference was “amazing, something like magic.”

“I was surprised. They are motivated and want to be number one in the class. My oldest is writing and reading in English. It was everything I was looking for,” Rico said.

Stories like Rico’s are becoming increasingly common as parents of English language learners, or ELLs, are turning to charter schools to provide their children with a school experience that meets their academic needs and honors their cultural heritage. And as more immigrant parents seek alternatives, charter schools are becoming increasingly focused on serving specific immigrant populations. For example:

At Twin Cities International Charter School, founded by East African immigrants, school lunches meet Islamic dietary requirements, girls can wear headscarves without being teased, and officials are trained to help students who have grown up in refugee camps.

At Hebrew Language Academy Charter School in Brooklyn, immigrant students from Russia and Israel can learn subjects such as art, music and social studies in a dual-language, Hebrew/English environment.

Immigrant parents often praise these schools for providing a sensitive transition to English language proficiency. In a country where students of color succumb to an “achievement gap” and ELLs are often underserved, the hopeful image of immigrant students in friendly schools has drawn national media attention.

But even if immigrant-focused charter schools are indeed “something like magic,” some educators worry the trend will only increase the pervasive de-facto segregation in America’s schools.

“I think there are some reasons to worry that programs that expand parental choice over schools could also expand segregation,” said Robert Bifulco, Jr., an associate professor of public affairs at Syracuse University who has studied school choice and segregation. “But do they do better in segregated schools? It depends on what you mean by better. Better in what?

“They may do better in some ways and not in other ways; there’s a tradeoff.”

Urban sociologist Pedro Noguera of New York University describes how parents are compelled to consider that tradeoff.

“You want students to be in class with educators who care about them and are skilled, but in integrated schools, you don’t necessarily have people with skills to meet the needs of immigrant students,” said Noguera.

Clearly, parents find the charter schools appealing. Many engage parents in their native language and focus on the children’s English language development with customized teaching methods. Educators at these schools are better equipped to address special circumstances experienced by immigrant families, such as refugee trauma. And the students seem to thrive.

Noguera said he has seen “a lot of really good public schools that are segregated.

“But we have to be concerned about segregating the schools because these students don’t get the same kind of exposure as they would in an integrated setting. Immigrant kids learn from being on the playground and being around kids who speak English,” he said. “Segregation is not in their best interest.”


Reconnecting the Generations

Principal Deborah Wei wants a diverse school, a multi-racial school where immigrant and non-immigrant students can excel. But in many ways, her school is a perfect example of the advantages of immigrant-focused charters.

The Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School, or FACT, was born out of years of parent dissatisfaction with the outcomes of Asian American students in Philadelphia. There was no school in the city’s Chinatown, and none on the construction schedule for a number of years. Things were so bad for the growing number of immigrant Asian American students that the nonprofit group Asian Americans United (AAU) filed a lawsuit requesting equal access to district schools, as well as other reforms.

Some reforms were instituted, but AAU eventually decided to take matters into its own hands. The group partnered with The Folklore Project to create FACT, the first publicly funded school in Chinatown North.

“We wanted to serve immigrant children and families in a way that honors their culture and provides education,” said Wei, principal and CEO of FACT. “And we wanted a multi-racial diverse school, not just Chinese and not just immigrant.”

The school is indeed diverse — with students of Chinese, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian and Hmong heritage, many of them immigrants. Yet with a student body that is 71 percent Asian American and a curriculum that emphasizes connections to home culture, it’s easy to see why this school is a particularly comfortable place for Asian immigrant students.

The school brings in artists, storytellers, dancers and musicians who are experts in their field but who also are recognized in their own communities. Artists who come to the school must meet a set of folk standards, similar to standards used for other subjects such as English and math. For Wei, it is a stark contrast to what might be called “international day” at a traditional public school where students are asked to dress in costume and eat ethnic food.

“We wanted kids to know that their own communities and families have valuable knowledge that can and should be shared,” said Wei. “We felt this aspect was particularly important because of the disconnect between generations. It’s really exacerbated in immigrant communities because of the marginalization of immigrant culture as the kids turn ‘American.’ Parents are watching their kids grow apart from them, and we wanted to interrupt that.”

Wei and her colleagues engage in a 45-minute community building session each morning to create the kind of climate that allows all students to feel comfortable and supported.

“It takes a lot of work,” Wei said. Her multilingual staff translates all written material into four other languages besides English, and the school subscribes to a telephonic transcription service that helps teachers talk to parents with the help of a translator.

Wei said she’d like to see more racial diversity in the school, where black, Latino and white students make up 29 percent of the population, but diversifying has been a challenge. Outreach, she said, is something charter schools don’t do well enough.

We wanted kids to know that their own communities and families have valuable knowledge that can and should be shared.

Do They Work?

While immigrant-focused charters have generated lots of positive buzz from parents and the press, the jury is still out on their effectiveness. Many of these schools are relatively new, and data is scarce.

In 2009, Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) released a report on the effectiveness of charter schools. The study looked at all charters — not just charters with an ethnic focus.

The study indicated that charter school students were not faring as well as students in traditional public schools. However, there were some notable exceptions. According to the CREDO report, English language learners performed significantly better in charter schools.

It’s hard to say why. Perhaps it is the individualized attention; charter schools are often smaller than traditional public schools, with lower levels of bureaucracy. Students seem to feel empowered in schools where they can share their cultural knowledge.

Some say that even when charter schools do work better for ELLs, the public shouldn’t think of them as a “magic bullet.” Because there just aren’t enough charter slots to go around, in some districts, ELLs often aren’t getting the slots that do exist.

“ELL students in particular get the short end of the stick when it comes to charter schools,” said Noel Anderson, an associate professor of political science at Brooklyn College. “Because admission is determined by lottery, often there is an information void about the how to apply to the school. It is a highly competitive process.”

The state of Massachusetts has been struggling with ELL access to charters. An article in The Boston Globe last summer reported that in Boston, which hosts a quarter of the state’s charter schools, ELL students represented less than 4 percent of the students in all but one of the city’s charter schools. This, in a school system where ELLs comprise nearly one-fifth of all students. Some allege that the charters are less likely to enroll ELL students because they might negatively affect test scores.

Noel Anderson believes the innovative spirit woven throughout schools like FACT should be present in all schools, not reserved for a select few entered into a lottery.

“We talk about charter schools as the only answer, but there is a tremendous amount of work going on in public schools,” Anderson said. “We can’t look at charter schools as the end of the movement because we can never, ever satisfy all children through their expansion.”

Xochitl Rico wishes more parents knew about charter schools because in her community “we don’t have a lot of support or information about schools.”

But she wouldn’t trade her sons’ school for anything.

“I want my children to have good opportunities in this country so they can go to college like everybody else,” she said.

Tips From Immigrant-Focused Charter Schools

Immigrant-focused charter schools work well for many ELL students and their families — though experts say it’s unlikely that there will ever be enough of these schools to serve every ELL student. Here are a few common charter-school themes that might work well in your own school:

Language immersion — Students are immersed in a new language for part of the day. Dan Gerstein, a spokesperson for Hebrew Language Academy, said parents embrace the opportunity for their children to learn a second language. “Some parents, for example, Israeli and Russian immigrants, really want their children to learn Hebrew,” he said.

Cultural exchange — Students share knowledge from their home cultures — which helps them stay in touch with their home cultures. “At FACT they would always tell me to keep up with my home language,” said Maitrivia Liem, originally from Indonesia. “They said that just because I’m learning English doesn’t mean I have to speak it all the time. Sometimes I thought if I went to another school, there might not be anyone telling me that.”

Individualized learning plans — School officials collect data to identify and assess the needs of each student, devising an individualized learning plan. “There is a high emphasis on strategies to teach ELL students,” said Randall Eckart, director of Twin Cities International in Minnesota.

Community building — Teachers create a warm and inclusive environment. “In a charter school we can build the type of climate that we want to have,” said principal Deborah Wei, who created “lunch families” at her school. “The older kids eat lunch with the younger kids, and they really learn how to take care of the younger ones.”

Cultural competency — Teachers respect and honor the cultures represented in ELL classrooms. “We don’t look at ELL as a barrier. We look at it as an advantage. Every one of our children speak two languages, some speak three languages, some speak four,” said Twin Cities’ Eckart.

Parents and grandparents are engaged — Teach students to respect the wisdom of their elders. Students at FACT “come from cultures where seniors are in the prime of their life,” said Wei, who hires local elders to spend time with students, sharing oral histories and cultural traditions.