Charter Schools Succeed at Language Instruction
Charter schools, the public schools run by independent organizations that are continual subjects of debate, are often compared to traditional public schools on the basis of facts and figures. Education reformers pore over test scores and graduation rates. They ask how many alumni go on to attend college. They tally the number of school computers and count how many hours students spend in the classroom. All of those measures reveal something about school quality, of course, but parents may consider any number of other factors when choosing where to send their children.
Fortunately, charter schools have the flexibility to tailor their curricula to specific types of student needs. For instance, charter schools that focus on foreign languages are flourishing across the country. Here in Missouri, there is currently one French-immersion charter school, Academie Lafayette of Kansas City, and French- and Spanish-immersion charters are set to open this year in Saint Louis. These specialized charter schools give students language-learning opportunities unmatched by traditional public schools, and their achievement in this area of instruction showcases the charter model’s advantages.
Many traditional public schools list foreign languages in their course offerings, in recognition of the cultural awareness and economic competitiveness that students gain from language learning. Still, the differences in how traditional districts and charter schools approach foreign languages are striking. Traditional public schools typically begin teaching foreign languages in middle school, or even later, by which time students are too old to absorb new vocabulary through effortless play and imitation. Students struggle with spelling drills and grammatical rules. Even if a teacher creates the most imaginative language lessons possible, the students have few other experiences with the language to reinforce what they’ve learned. What happens in French class stays in French class.
That’s not to say individual districts haven’t tried. Some, acknowledging the importance of early exposure to a foreign language, have introduced Spanish or French classes into their elementary schools. In Tarrytown, N.Y., for example, kindergarten and first-grade students study Spanish for 20 minutes each day. Older children receive one 40-minute lesson every fourth day. This is similar to the Ladue district’s Spanish program here in Missouri. Ladue kindergarteners study Spanish for 20 minutes three times a week; first- through fifth-graders have Spanish class for 30 minutes twice a week. Students don’t hear nearly enough Spanish to gain fluency, but because classrooms have to wait their turns for the Spanish specialist, more Spanish time isn’t possible. Ambitious districts like these may squeeze a little more foreign language time into the school day. However, producing multilingual graduates is hardly a top priority in terms of class time or resources.
For language-immersion charter schools, language acquisition isn’t just a 20-minute activity; it’s the focus of the entire school. “Welcome” banners and cafeteria signs are printed in the target language. (Or languages. Many teach multiple languages in addition to English, like the World Language Academy in Chestnut Mountain, Ga., which features both Spanish and Mandarin Chinese.) Immersion requires a significant chunk of school time, although this varies by school and by grade level. At the low end, the Ben Gamla Charter School in Hollywood, Fla., teaches Hebrew during two class periods. At the other end of the spectrum, the Yu Ying Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., is conducted entirely in Mandarin Chinese. And some charter schools, like Kansas City’s Academie Lafayette, start out with full immersion in the early grades and gradually introduce more English time as students grow older.
There’s no law that says traditional districts can’t adopt school languages and teach various subjects in an immersion environment. Charter schools don’t have that kind of legal advantage. But they do have the advantage of specialization. To attract students, they must create unique educational features that aren’t found in every other school. Charters start from scratch with new ideas and needn’t try to cram language time into preexisting schedules. And, because students choose to attend charters, they’re free to go out on a limb with policies that might not work in all schools but could be very successful for students who are interested.
Parents who want to cultivate a love of languages in their children should consider sending them to language-immersion charter schools. Charters’ language programs stand in sharp contrast to those offered by traditional public schools, and are a testimony to the benefits of specialization and competition.
Sarah Brodsky is a former Show-Me Institute policy analyst. She works as a freelance writer.