We Don’t Know Much About the ELLs in Charter Schools

By Mary Ann Zehr — September 11, 2009 2 min read
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In Massachusetts, English-language learners who attend charter schools are much more likely to have been in the United States for a longer period of time on average than ELLs in the regular public schools, according to an issue brief written by the Somerville, Mass.-based Multicultural Education, Training, and Advocacy Inc., an advocacy group for ELLs.

The group found that 31 percent of ELLs who took the state’s English-language-proficiency test had been in school in the United States for one or two years. But at charter schools, only 13 percent of ELLs had been in U.S. schools for that little amount of time. At the Lawrence Family Development Charter School in Lawrence, Mass., the group found that 77 percent of ELLs who had taken the state’s English-proficiency test in grades 3 to 8 had been in the United States for five or more years and 20 percent had been in this country for four years. Only a few had been in the country for less time than that.

The group makes the point that students who have been in America for a long period of time are likely to have more proficiency in English than those who just arrived.

The META brief provides the most detailed picture of ELLs in charter schools that I’ve seen yet for any state. And yet Roger Rice, the executive director for META, told me it is an “incomplete snapshot.”

I wrote about what we know about ELLs and their achievement in charter schools across the nation in an article that was just published at For that article, I looked at the only national study I could find that examined the achievement of ELLs in charter schools. It concluded that nationwide ELLs do better academically in charter schools than traditional public schools. But that study didn’t explore who those ELLs are.

A couple of charter school administrators I interviewed in Massachusetts said they don’t tend to receive a lot of students with “zero English” skills. Of course, charter schools must provide everyone with an opportunity to enroll, but some speculated that immigrant families who are new to a community may not find out right away about all the educational options. Charter schools typically only accept applications once a year, by a specific deadline, while public schools must take children at any time of the year.

Also, typically, charter schools have few openings to enroll children after the earliest grades as they educate only a set number of students in each grade, and classes are often already filled up with students who were at the school in previous years.

At a charter school serving a largely Hispanic population in Brownsville, Texas, that I visited last year, the administrators acknowledged that while they enroll a lot of ELLs, they don’t tend to enroll students in the upper grades who are new arrivals to the community. The school was the Brownsville IDEA Frontier Academy and College Preparatory School, part of the IDEA charter school network in the Rio Grande Valley whose students tend to be Hispanic.

This issue of who the ELLs are at charter schools and how they are doing academically will be on my mind this week as I visit Chicago to write about charter schools there that serve a largely Hispanic group of students and are run by United Neighborhood Organization, a Hispanic advocacy group.

The purpose of visiting Chicago will not be to report specifically on ELLs, but I’m hoping to learn something about whether they tend to be newcomers or from established immigrant families in the city.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.