Equity & Diversity

One School, Two Cultures

By Mary Ann Zehr — September 12, 2001 15 min read
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Some Hispanic and Cambodian parents didn't believe their children were benefiting from public schools, so they started their own charter school.

Wendy J. Wood’s class at Lowell Community Charter School is playing a game called “popcorn” during reading practice.

“The girl had a little cat,” reads 1st grader James Keo, and with the word “popcorn,” passes the opportunity to read aloud to 3rd grader Joannie Maldonado. “She loved her cat,” continues Joannie and pops the opportunity to read to 2nd grader Vichny Eng, who in turn pops it along to 1st grader Sheila Cepeda.

The game continues until all of the 10 children in the reading group have read at least one sentence of the story aloud. And, in fact, all of them can read—if reading means sounding out most of the words in a story carefully designed for their level.

In several ways, Wood’s reading group illustrates the philosophies that the charter school in this blue-collar city of 100,000 about 35 miles northwest of Boston was founded upon. The school, established by Cambodians and Hispanics, has brought together a cross section of children in Lowell. The reading group, for example, has four children of Cambodian descent, two of Colombian descent, two Puerto Ricans, one African-American, and one white student.

In addition, Wood’s reading group is made up of pupils from several grades. Children are assigned to reading groups formed according to their skill levels, not grades. That fits with the school’s philosophy of having teachers meet students where they are academically, and then try to enhance their skills.

Wendy J. Wood, a teacher at Lowell Community Charter School, says some students came to her without knowing how to spell their names. By the end of the year, they could sound out words and read simple stories.
—Sevans for Education Week

Wood’s reading students were among those enrolled during the Lowell Community Charter School’s first year of operation, which ended in June. As the school enters its second year, the school’s board members and parents say that its philosophies—and the flexibility of its charter status—give minority students here a better education than they could get in regular public schools.

But even so, the school faces myriad challenges this fall that show the leadership of a charter school can be quite fragile.

The school’s headmaster, Ramón Álvarez, resigned in June over differences with the board of directors. And the Rev. James Loiácono, a Roman Catholic priest who helped start the school and served as the chairman of the board for two years, also resigned from his post over the summer to accept an assignment in Rome from his religious order.

“It remains to be seen,” says Rosemary Leblanc-Considine, the assistant to the superintendent of the Lowell public schools, if the new charter school can do a better job teaching the community’s largest minorities—Cambodians and Latinos—than the Lowell district.

She estimates that the 16,000-student district—which is 66 percent minority, with Cambodians constituting 28 percent of the enrollment and Latinos 22 percent—has lost about 200 students to the charter school, which enrolled 300 students in kindergarten through 3rd grade this past school year. The school’s charter calls for the addition of a grade of students each year, until it serves grades K-12. In August, the school started its second year, now as a K-4 school with 354 students.

The founders have had the unusual vision among people starting charter schools to establish a school that would focus on the culture and language of two ethnic groups, not just one.

Charter schools are publicly financed schools that operate largely independent of the regulations that govern most public schools. Massachusetts is one of 37 states and the District of Columbia that permit the option.

In Lowell, the idea of starting a charter school particularly for two minority groups was born because of sparring between Cambodian and Puerto Rican gangs that could have fueled the story line for an updated “West Side Story.”

The verdict is still out on whether charter schools can provide minority students a better education than regular public schools.

“There was too much tension between the Southeast Asian and Latino youth—killing each other on a monthly basis,” says Samkhann Khoeun, the executive director of the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association in Lowell, who was in on the early planning for the school.

Khoeun recalls that Cambodians and Latinos got together and brainstormed about what to do to stop the violence. “All pointed to education,” he says. “We had to take charge of the education of our children. Otherwise, no one else would do it—or they may not do it the way we want to do it.”

While they conceptualized a school with strong academics, Cambodian and Latino parents also envisioned a school in which educators would care deeply about the students, says Thel Sar, a Cambodian who has a master’s degree in social psychology and serves as the acting chairman of the charter school’s board.

First graders, from left, Julie Chan, Victoria Silva, and Sydney Vaughn share a lunchtime conversation.
—Allison Shelley

A probation officer, Sar has met a lot of Cambodian and Hispanic youths who have had scrapes with the law. He attributes some of their problems to a lack of concern by teachers and school officials about them. “I’m taking care of quite a few families around here,” he says. “When their kids get into trouble, [school officials] don’t investigate and see what they can do. They just expel people. They pretty much go by the books.”

Loiácono, the former board chairman, says that Hispanics have faced so much discrimination in the Lowell school system that “there was no other way” to improve education for them but to start a new school. “I got a lot of complaints from parents,” he says. “The attitudes against them were very negative. People in the schools try to say it’s not that way, but it has been.”

But Leblanc-Considine counters that “as a school system, I think we’re doing a good job in reaching out to and teaching Cambodian and Latino students.” She says the school system does investigate why students may be having discipline problems in school. “We have an attendance office where one of the attendance monitors is Latino, one is Cambodian, and one is African-American. We go out into the community. ... I monitor the expulsion hearings for children. I don’t think there’s any bias against those children.”

Over the past few years, the Lowell district has spent millions of dollars on staff development around issues of equity and education for English-language learners, Leblanc-Considine says. It has hired additional reading specialists at the elementary and middle school levels to focus on children’s individual needs. It reaches out to parents through parent liaisons who speak either Khmer—the principal language of Cambodia—or Spanish.

But it’s unclear what impact those efforts have had on the academic achievement of minority students. The district isn’t required by the state to track the performance of its students on the state’s standardized test by ethnicity or race, and it doesn’t do so. Collectively, however, the district’s students have steadily improved their scores on the state test over the past few years.

Amy Stuart Wells, a professor of education policy at the University of California, Los Angeles, and an expert on charter schools, says that no one tracks the ethnic or racial background of people who establish charter schools nationwide. She says, though, that minority groups typically start such schools out of a deep frustration with urban public schools—"whether it’s a lack of resources, or quality of teachers, or of a curriculum not at all representing the history and culture of that particular people.”

But Wells adds that the verdict is still out on whether charter schools can provide minority students a better education than regular public schools. “There’s some evidence that some of them have raised test scores,” she says. “But some have closed down for financial reasons. It’s a really mixed bag.”

Lowell Community Charter School has focused on the cultures of Cambodians and Latinos by requiring all students in the school to study either Khmer or Spanish for several 20-minute sessions each week.

But academic goals, not cultural goals, seem to have driven the school’s curriculum and operations in its first year. Reading has received top priority—occupying a 90-minute block in the morning schoolwide—with mathematics following close behind. The afternoon is reserved for social studies and science or for “specials,” such as Khmer or Spanish class, music, or physical education.

Academic goals, not cultural goals, seem to have driven the school's curriculum and operations. Reading has received top- priority.

“These kids don’t come in to school with many things that middle-class children come in with,” says Álvarez, the school’s headmaster for year one, who previously worked for the Los Angeles County school system setting up model schools. “Their vocabulary is limited because their parents don’t provide a lot of language, or they speak another language. They may not know colors, numbers, and letters of the alphabet. They may not know how to socialize.”

In his view, public schools across the country stick to ways of operating that don’t accommodate such children. “They are not able to adjust quickly enough to start at ground zero to help these students,” he says. “If students are in 3rd grade and don’t know how to read, we start them at ground level and move them up. Many schools aren’t able to do that.”

Nine-year-old Joannie Maldonado, who was a member of Wood’s reading group this past school year, fits Álvarez’s description. She arrived in Lowell from Puerto Rico last February to live with her aunt and uncle. She didn’t speak English, and says she never learned to read and write in Spanish while attending school in Puerto Rico.

While a 3rd grader at Lowell Charter School, Joannie spent much of each morning in Wood’s reading group, the school’s lowest-level reading group, which includes some 1st graders. In her own assessment of her ability to read in English at the end of last school year, she says: “I can read the book in class. I can read ‘dog’ and ‘cat.’ The other ones I don’t know I can sound out.”

And all the other children in her reading group could do the same, though several required more prompting than she did. That’s remarkable, Wood says, given that some of those students couldn’t even recognize letters of the alphabet and didn’t know how to write their own names when the school opened.

Has Lowell Charter School taught these children to read?

Not necessarily, says Richard Allington, an education professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Allington is critical of heavily scripted reading programs like the ones the Lowell school uses.

“The sounding-out-the-words part is the easiest part,” he says, adding that such programs don’t place enough emphasis on other important reading skills, such as comprehension and vocabulary. He tends to judge a school’s effectiveness in teaching reading by counting the time children spend reading every day voluntarily. “Early on, kids will read anything to be like an adult,” he says. “But if they don’t eventually find it interesting or entertaining, they will stop.”

At the same time, Timothy Shanahan, a reading education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a member of the influential National Reading Panel, notes that while sounding out words isn’t all there is to reading, it is an important part.

“The big benefit to the most structured reading programs is the content coverage,” he says. “They make darn sure the kids get exposed to what they must be exposed to rather than leave it up to the teacher to do so—and she may or may not.”

Teachers at the charter school say their students made solid progress in the school’s first year of operation not only because of a structured curriculum in reading, but also because of a structured atmosphere for all subjects.

Indeed, students seemed to move from one well-defined lesson to another through the extra-long day—8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

“Structure keeps them focused,” says Mary Drevet, a 3rd grade teacher. “When they don’t have the skills, it can be frustrating for them, and you lose them.”

When they first enrolled in the school, they hated reading. They said, 'I don't want to do it. I'm stupid. I can't.'"

She says the flexibility of operations at the charter school has also helped her meet students’ needs. For example, just a couple of months before the end of the school year, she and another 3rd grade teacher decided to try grouping 3rd graders for math class according to their knowledge, rather than have pupils of mixed levels in both classes.

The lower-level class then received a review of some of the math concepts the youngsters should have learned in 2nd grade. According to Drevet, the new arrangement allowed the students who had been struggling to feel more successful. At any school other than a charter school, she says, administrative hurdles would likely have impeded trying such a strategy.

Educators here repeatedly emphasize how they’ve tried to meet the academic needs of each child. That’s no small challenge, given that at the beginning of the last school year, 90 percent of the school’s 3rd graders tested below grade level in reading, as did a majority of 1st and 2nd graders.

But by the end of their first year in school, some of those children had progressed more than one grade in their skills, as measured by the assessments of various programs. There are no before-and-after scores on standardized tests to point to at this stage.

Wood says she’s witnessed a transformation in attitude toward reading by some of the lowest-performing students. When they first enrolled in the school, she recalls, “they hated reading. They said, ‘I don’t want to do it. I’m stupid. I can’t.’ ”

But their attitude changed over the course of the school year, she says, and they became eager to read.

Parents say that the school had a disorganized start, but that they are satisfied with its results overall. “They spend more time to teach the kids—writing, reading, mathematics—a lot of skills the kids need to know,” says Daren Lim, a custodian at the school who last year enrolled his stepson in 1st grade. He says that his son “went to school before, but didn’t learn how to read sounds and letters.” Lim, who has lived here in Lowell since arriving from Cambodia at age 10, regrets he didn’t receive a high-quality education himself.

“Anyone who wants to give their kid a good education, and doesn’t want to have to send her to a private Catholic school, this is a good option,” says Julie E. Belley, whose daughter was in Wood’s reading group. She complains that her daughter did “arts and crafts” in kindergarten in her previous school and wasn’t well-prepared to enter 1st grade.

Several parents say they are particularly pleased with how the charter school has met the needs of students with disabilities. The school encourages the enrollment of such children and employs a full-time administrator and a full-time resource teacher for special education.

Anyone who wants to give their kid a good education, and doesn't want to have to send her to a private Catholic school, this is a good option."

Patricia A. Hagler, an African-American whose son has a communications disability, says the charter school has done a better job of educating her child than the regular public school system. “The teachers work with me,” she says. “They seem to really care—take time with him. His reading skills are improving, and his math skills are improving.”

Some of the charter school’s board members and teachers say that the school should be doing more, however, to meet the needs of students who are learning English as a second language. While many students here speak a language other than English at home, in fact, only 8 percent have been identified as having limited English skills, according to school officials. Most were born in the United States and know enough English to function in a traditional English-speaking classroom.

The school doesn’t have enough students with limited English skills to necessitate providing transitional bilingual education—instruction in students’ native languages while they’re learning English. Massachusetts law requires a charter school or district to provide that approach when it has 20 or more English-language learners with the same native tongue.

But the school still has a legal obligation to help students with limited English skills overcome language barriers. School administrators say the school is doing so by employing teachers’ aides who speak either Khmer or Spanish.

Barry Barnett, an administrator in the Massachusetts education department’s charter school office, says that can be one way for schools to meet their obligation. But Sar, the Lowell charter school’s acting board chairman, says he’d like to see the school offer transitional bilingual education.

By most accounts, Ramón Álvarez proved to be a popular headmaster among parents and teachers. But he decided not to come back for the current school year. He resigned, he says, because the board didn’t offer him a contract for another school year in a timely manner.

But he says he was also unhappy with what he perceived as “micromanagement” by the board of directors this past year, which he suspects may be a characteristic of charter schools. “Since board members are the founding fathers of the school, they feel like they own and must run the school,” he says. “But they have no earthly idea of how to run a school.”

Sue Jamback, the school’s new director.
—Allison Shelley

Board members hired Sue Jamback to serve as the charter school director this year. She previously was the founding director of a charter school in nearby Chelmsford, Mass. Jamback says she hasn’t seen any signs that board members micromanage Lowell Community Charter School.

Jamback says she plans to continue the school’s academic program in a manner similar to last year’s approach. But she has taken steps to increase dramatically the amount of one-on-one tutoring available to children and to make sure each student receives 20 minutes of Spanish or Khmer language instruction every day, not just a few times a week as they did last year.

Roman Jaquez, a native of the Dominican Republic who helped found the school and now serves on the board of directors, says he’s confident the board will keep the charter school on a steady course, despite its recent leadership changes.

He’s inspired by teachers’ reports of how students progressed academically and how well they mixed socially during the first year of operation. “Everything is going to be different when those little kids start working together when they grow up as teenagers,” he says. “They will know each other. They will respect each other. The city of Lowell is the one that’s going to benefit.”

Funding for these stories was provided in part by the Ford Foundation, which helps underwrite coverage of the changing definition of public schooling.


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