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

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IN SCHOOL DISTRICTS WITH LARGE 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, nonprofit organization focused on reducing poverty and discrimination and opportunity for Hispanic Americans, about 100 community-based charter schools serve districts like these across the United States.

None of the schools serve 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 and then Camino Nuevo High School in 2004. Now it serves more than 1,500 students, of whom 98 percent qualify for free and reduced-price meals, based on their household size and income.

ELLs represent 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, 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, students' quarterly benchmark assessments are closely reviewed. …