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Study: Mass. Charter Public Schools Boosting Achievement for English Language Learners

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Schools using inclusion, data-driven instruction, and parent engagement to help thousands of under-served students in Chelsea, Lawrence, and Lowell

BOSTON – Massachusetts K-12 education policymakers and all public schools should closely examine the best practices of charter schools in Gateway Cities that are effectively recruiting students who are English language learners (ELLs) and improving their academic outcomes, according to a new Pioneer Institute White Paper.

In Massachusetts Charter Public Schools: Best Practices Serving English Language Learners, author and Pioneer Senior Education Fellow, Cara Stillings Candal, draws on interviews with school leaders and classroom observations in three charter schools to describe some of the successful strategies used to enable large ELL populations to achieve at high levels.

Charter schools are increasingly serving percentages of special education and ELL students that are similar to their district peers. According to the study, the percentage of ELL students enrolled in Boston charter schools has increased from about 2.5 percent to 12 percent in just four years, and is trending upward.

“Critics claim that charters cherry-pick students and don’t serve the same populations as traditional public schools, but this report provides clear evidence to the contrary,” said Pioneer Institute Executive Director, Jim Stergios. “Some of the schools highlighted in this report are serving more English language learners than their district counterparts, and helping them achieve better results.”

The report focuses on two charter school networks and one individual charter school with a Level 1 accountability rating from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) because of their success in narrowing achievement gaps.

Two of the organizations, Lowell Community Charter Public School (LCCPS) and The Community Group in Lawrence, have percentages of ELL students that are higher than those of the surrounding traditional public school district.

Students at LCCPS come from 20 different countries and speak 23 languages, and 47 percent of its students are ELLs, compared to 26 percent in the Lowell Public Schools. The school has achieved Level 1 accountability status for the past three years.

At the Community Day Charter Public School-Prospect, 40 percent of students are ELLs, compared to 30 percent in the Lawrence Public Schools.

Another group featured in the report, Excel Academies in Chelsea and East Boston, operates four schools, with 800 students.  It serves fewer ELL students than the district but has a significant population in comparison to surrounding charter schools.

Some of the inter-related best practices common to all three organizations discussed in the report are:

  • Individualization with an emphasis on inclusion: Leveraging ELL specialists who can “push in” to the mainstream classroom as well as “pull out” to provide extra, individualized supports.
  • Formative assessment: Frequent use of formal benchmark assessments; working collaboratively to interpret what data reveal on individual student needs; and adjusting curricula.
  • Language-enriched environments: Making language visible school-wide, so that students are surrounded by vocabulary that is clear and accessible.
  • Teacher recruitment and development: Recruiting teachers with a “growth mindset” and familiarity with students’ backgrounds; providing differentiated and targeted training opportunities.
  • Parent engagement: Regular outreach to parents regarding student progress, to help them become more involved in their children’s education.

“By equipping teachers with specific strategies and tactics for meeting the needs of ELL students, these charter public schools are enabling high levels of achievement,” Candal said. “They are proving that students of all cultural, social, and economic backgrounds can excel academically when given the right tools and the opportunity.”

Candal urges education leaders to view ELL placement as a temporary categorization rather than a diagnosis, with the goal of moving students into the mainstream as soon as possible.

The report applauds holding charter schools accountable for recruiting and retaining ELLs and other special populations, but warns against “punishing” schools that succeed in helping students shift out of a category based on academic achievement. The study includes recommendations for DESE and education leaders on how to foster continued success for schools that serve significant numbers of ELL students.

A bill to lift the statewide cap on the number of charter schools is pending in the Massachusetts state legislature. Charter supporters have also filed a lawsuit and submitted signatures for a statewide ballot initiative to authorize a dozen new charter schools per year beyond the current cap.

Cara Stillings Candal is an education researcher and writer. She is as senior consultant for research and curriculum at the Center for Better Schools/National Academy for Advanced Teacher Education, an adjunct professor at the Boston University School of Education, and a senior fellow at Pioneer Institute.

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Pioneer Institute is an independent, non-partisan, privately funded research organization that seeks to improve the quality of life in Massachusetts through civic discourse and intellectually rigorous, data-driven public policy solutions based on free market principles, individual liberty and responsibility, and the ideal of effective, limited and accountable government.