Charters Shouldn’t Have to Copy Traditional Public Schools
Worrisome news from Los Angeles suggests that some public school districts are not the “melting pots” that education lore makes them out to be. Students who don’t speak English are relegated to separate classes, where they have little contact with native speakers. Many who entered the schools in kindergarten still don’t know English by high school. And, once they’ve mastered the language, they have to catch up on the academics they missed:
Mary Campbell, who is in charge of English language learning programs at L.A. Unified, said students must learn English as well as the grade-level material to move into mainstream classes. That often takes longer than learning the language, she said.
It must be a big challenge for a district with lots of non-native language speakers to integrate them all within a few years, so I don’t want to rush to blame L.A. Unified. But it does make you wonder why traditional districts’ English language learning programs are held up as a model for charter schools. The districts’ approach doesn’t work with all students, and charters should be free to try new ways of teaching English that could help students who fall behind in regular English classes.
Several charter proposals in Oregon have been turned down on grounds that they lacked plans to educate children who don’t speak English (and that they didn’t have enough community support, and a bunch of other things). Given the results of English programs in districts like L.A. Unified, no plan could be the best plan. If charters don’t expect large numbers of English language learners, they might mainstream them and let them learn English through immersion. Students would hear English all day long, instead of sitting in a class with others who don’t know any more English than they do. Parents who prefer a structured English program would always have the option of staying in the traditional district instead of choosing a charter.
Language immersion charters are another alternative to traditional English classes. In these schools, part of class time is spent in English and the rest in a foreign language. Every student has the experience of learning in a language they don’t yet speak fluently, so English language learners aren’t the odd ones out. An advantage of immersion charters is that grade-level materials are taught in at least two languages. For example, a Spanish-speaking student attending an English-Spanish charter would learn English for part of the day, while continuing to study some subjects in Spanish. This prevents students from taking one step forward in English, two steps backward in math or history.
If they’re to improve education, charters have to be free to depart from the districts’ established routines — including English classes.