A “Reality Check” on Charter Schools

by Sandra Lilley

This story comes to us from NBC Latino.


Charter schools might make up only 5 percent of the nation’s schools, but they do get a lot of attention. The Obama administration has strongly encouraged their expansion, and Republican hopeful Mitt Romney promised more school choice in his recent campaign speech to a Latino group.


While charter schools are increasingly touted by some as the answer to improving Latino and minority student outcomes, the fact is it really depends on the charter school itself - just like with traditional public schools.


Charter schools worked for Lilia Pineda, who was in the first graduating class at YES Prep East End in Houston, Texas. “It definitely put me in the path toward a successful college career from an early age,” says Pineda, who came to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 8, and whose parents did not go to college.


From the time she started in sixth grade, Pineda says, YES Prep’s emphasis was on college completion and excellence. The school took her on field trips to see colleges, and her school life revolved around doing well enough to attend an out-of-state institution. Pineda ended up at Brandeis, a prestigious university, and joined Teach for America. She asked to be placed at her former school, and has remained teaching math and now AP Spanish at YES Prep East End.


The Texas YES Prep schools have been singled out in a National Council of La Raza (NCLR) report as well as by Education Secretary Arne Duncan for their quality education. But this is not the case with many of the nation’s charter schools. A Stanford University study found only 17 percent of charter schools perform better than the traditional neighborhood public schools, and in fact, 37 percent rank below. Nearly half of charter perform at about the same level as their traditional counterparts.


There is also a question of sufficient Latino representation in some of the nation’s charter schools, as is the case in some New York City neighborhoods.


“English-language learners are generally underrepresented in charters, and this is a huge problem,” says Dr. Pedro Noguera, an expert on education and a professor at New York University. By federal law, the nation’s public schools, which includes charter schools, must provide for ways to overcome language barriers that prevent equal participation for all children. Noguera argues the “lottery system” used by many charter schools which do not have open enrollment might preclude families who are either not proficient in English or who do not want to reveal their legal status.


Other neighborhoods are in the completely opposite situation, as is the case with the Camino Nuevo Charter schools in Los Angeles, praised by Noguera and others for their academic success and highly effective bilingual program. Ninety-nine percent of the students at the José Castellanos Camino Nuevo Charter school are Latino, 70 percent speak Spanish as a first language, and the vast majority are on free and reduced lunch.


Yet a 2010 UCLA study found charter schools are more segregated than traditional public schools, and Noguera agrees.


“While charter schools like Camino Nuevo do a great job, one way to learn English is to interact with other English-speaking children, and these students are not exposed to this, he says. Noguera and others say charter schools need to work at increasing socio-economic as well as racial and ethnic diversity.


In some predominantly Latino neighborhoods, however, the traditional public schools would not be much more diverse, says Yvonne Carrillo, Assistant Principal at the José Castellanos Camino Nuevo charter school. Carrillo argues her 589 mostly immigrant, low-income students greatly benefit from the academic autonomy of the charter school format.


“We use the most cutting-edge and conceptual programs in math and reading, and we have the flexibility to adapt and change according to how they are working.” The NCLR report concedes charters can better adapt to language instruction, for example, which benefits Latino immigrant children - if they are well run.


Some Latino charter schools have lower gains in math and reading than traditional public schools, according to the Center for Research on Education Outcomes. The solution, say educators, is to take the best of charter schools and replicate it in traditional public schools - and vice versa.


“I’m in a network of charter and traditional public school principals called the School Leaders Network,” says Carrillo. “We are talking to each other about best practices.”


Unfortunately, says Noguera, many policy makers have set it up as a competition between the two kinds of schools.


“It’s unfair, since in many cases charter schools are bankrolled by wealthy groups, and it is undermining public schools,” Noguera says.


“The key,” says Camino Nuevo’s Carrillo, “is to learn from each other.”


Sandra Lilley is a reporter with NBC Latino.




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