Immigrant Charter Schools: A Better Choice?

Tolerance (SPLC), Spring 2010

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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.

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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 {snip} “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. {snip}

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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.

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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.

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