Families & the Community

Ethnic-Based Schools Popular

By Mary Ann Zehr — September 12, 2001 4 min read
One of the biggest advantages of the ethnic-based charter school option is the ability to teach a curriculum with a cultural focus.

Minority parents and educators have capitalized on the charter school movement to design schools intended to meet the particular needs of their children. One of the biggest advantages of the charter school option, organizers of such schools say, is the ability to teach a curriculum with a cultural focus.

In some instances, such as with Hispanics and Cambodians in Lowell, Mass., two different minority groups have come together to establish a school. But more often, experts say, members of a single racial or ethnic minority found a charter school and design a curriculum with the interests of that group in mind. And usually, most of the students attracted to that school are from the same founding group—even though charter schools, like other publicly funded schools, can’t exclude students on the basis of race or national origin.

“The focus helps determine the student population, but charter schools absolutely must be open to all races and ethnic groups,” says Angela L. Irwin, the public relations coordinator for Central Michigan University’s charter school office, which has licensed 58 of the 185 charter schools now operating in that state. “Certainly, if a specific academy focuses on an Armenian curriculum or cultural awareness,” Irwin adds, “it’s going to attract the Armenian community.”

In fact, an estimated 70 percent of students attending the nation’s only known Armenian-focused charter school, the AGBU Alex and Marie Manoogian School in Southfield, Mich., are of Armenian descent, according to the school’s principal, Nadya Sarafian. But the proportion of students with Armenian roots is now smaller than during the 25 years that the school was a private school, she says.

The 1995 conversion of the school from a private school to a charter school, she says, helped it to attract a larger, more diverse student population. “We have a long waiting list,” Sarafian says. “It’s not because we teach Armenian. It’s because it’s a good school and students get individualized attention.”

Some ethnic-based charter schools maintain an enrollment in which 90 percent to 100 percent of the students come from the group that began the school. For example, about 98 percent of the 150 students attending the Ha:sañ Preparatory & Leadership Charter School in Tucson, Ariz., are members of the Tohono O’odham Indian tribe.

“Our students self-select. They know we’re designed with a bicultural, bilingual focus,” says Donna Braun, the school’s assistant director. Besides offering a rigorous curriculum to prepare students for college, the charter school requires that all students study the Tohono O’odham language.

The racial and ethnic groups that have set up charter schools don’t fall into neat categories. They range from narrowly defined groups, such as the members of a particular American Indian tribe, to broadly defined groups, such as Hispanics or African-Americans. Some groups that have formed charter schools, such as Muslims from the Middle East, consider their religion to be as much a part of their identity as a shared culture, though they comply with charter school rules prohibiting religious instruction in school.

The racial and ethnic groups that have set up charter schools don't fall into neat categories.

The reasons that members of minority groups set up charter schools don’t fit into tidy categories, either. Braun, the assistant director of the Ha:sañ charter school, says a group of teachers and parents on the Tohono O’odham reservation started the charter school because they believed the Bureau of Indian Affairs schools and public schools on the reservation weren’t preparing their students for college.

“The schools on the reservation weren’t even requiring the courses students would need to be accepted into universities, even with conditions,” she says.

But, by contrast, Mexican-American parents and administrators of the Pajaro Valley Unified School District in Watsonville, Calif., converted a two-way bilingual education program at a regular public school to a charter school primarily to avoid having to comply with Proposition 227, the ballot measure approved by California voters in 1998 that aims to dismantle bilingual education.

Sarafian, the principal from Michigan, says the Armenian school changed from private to charter status “to make it a more viable, competitive school for students who want to be prepared. As a small school, sometimes we were criticized for being isolated.”

Nawal Hamadeh, the founder and superintendent of Universal Academy and Star International Academy in Dearborn, Mich., says that the charter schools that she directs are needed to provide immigrant families from the Middle East who can’t afford private schools with an alternative to regular public schools.

Not only do the academies provide a cultural focus through instruction in Arabic as a foreign language, but they also tend to be more sensitive to the religious beliefs of Muslim students than many public schools are, Hamadeh says. About 95 percent of the schools’ 525 students are from Middle Eastern immigrant families, and most of those families are Muslim, she says.

The academies, for example, serve food that has been prepared according to Muslim tenets, separate boys and girls for sex education and physical education, and provide a room for students of any faith to pray or meditate.

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