Mott Haven Charter Schools Still Fail to Enroll a Fair Share of Students Learning English

Mott Haven and Melrose, South Bronx neighborhoods with a history of neglect, have become a laboratory of sorts for New York City’s 196 charter schools—schools that are publicly funded and privately run. Their school district has 21 of them, nearly double that of any other district in the city.

These schools face a variety of challenges. Not least of which: more than half of children living nearby don’t speak English at home, according to census data. Many of these kids, upon entering the classroom, are classified as English Language Learners, or ELLs, and eligible to receive additional assistance.

A 2010 state law set enrollment targets to prod charter schools into taking their fair share of a district’s ELL students, but a BronxInk analysis found that only 10 percent of the city’s charters met them. In Mott Haven’s District 7, only three of the district’s 21 charter schools reached their required ELL enrollment numbers.

The range of compliance is vast. South Bronx Charter School for International Cultures and the Arts, an elementary school where half of instruction is in Spanish, is 38 percent ELL. Success Academy Bronx 1, a mile to the northwest, is only 4 percent. Targets in the district vary between 16 to 22 percent, depending on the mix of grades a school offers.

As a result of low ELL enrollment in charter schools, disproportionately large numbers of children with special language needs end up in the district’s traditional schools. That strikes some parent advocates as unfair. “It really is creating two separate school systems,” said Leonie Haimson, director of Class Size Matters, a New York-based public education advocacy group.

The overrepresentation of these students in public schools has consequences. “That’s an added burden and in a tight money situation taking on added burden means doing more of somethings and less of other things,” said Jeffrey Henig, a professor at Columbia’s Teachers College.

Furthermore, by taking fewer English Language Learners, charters may be depriving kids of a better education. A 2015 study of Texas students published by Stanford University researchers found that ELL students who attended charter school received the equivalent of 50 additional days of reading education compared to kids who went to district schools.

“Potentially there is a segment of the population who is not getting access to these schools that are supposed to be an engine for innovation,” said Harold Hinds, an attorney at Advocates for Children, a New York students’ rights advocacy organization.

Regardless of consequences, if the targets were intended to create parity, they do not appear to be working.

Over the last five years, the proportion of ELL kids in charter schools has increased 10 percent. But the proportion in traditional schools has increased as well, albeit more slowly. At this rate, it will take two decades for charter schools to catch up.

Part of the problem is a lack of incentive, said Hinds. “They are targets that if met, maybe they get a golf clap,” he said.

In theory, state charter authorizers can close schools that fail to meet their targets. But this is a stick they seem reluctant to use. “When charter schools are up for reauthorization the primary thing that is assessed is their test scores,” said Hinds.

By the standard of test scores, the winner among New York City charter schools is Success Academy, a 12-year-old network of nearly 50 charter schools across the city that perform among the top 1 percent of schools on state standardized tests.

The network is also a lightning rod for critics that assert charter schools are not pulling their fair weight when it comes to enrolling students that need additional help. Success Academy Bronx 1, the network’s Mott Haven elementary school, has some of the district’s highest test scores (99 percent of its students passed the state’s most recent standardized math tests) and also the smallest proportion of ELL students.

In 2016, that school was up for renewal. In its report to regulators, administrators said 8 percent of the school’s student body were ELL, less than half that of the district. In recommending it’s renewal, the regulator, SUNY Charter Schools Institute, cited a loophole in the 2010 law. Using the school’s official name, the report reads, “Success Bronx 1 makes good faith efforts to meet its enrollment and retention targets.”

What exactly constitutes such an effort is unclear.

“There has never been an appetite to change the definition of good faith effort to make that something close to a formal, clear requirement,” said Hinds.

In a statement, Susie Miller Carello, Executive Director of the institute, confirmed that the organization followed the letter of the law when deciding whether to renew a school’s charter. She did not explain how it decides whether an effort is in good faith.

What is clear is that there is something very different about charters that meet their targets versus those merely making the effort.

Hidden inside a converted warehouse on the eastern edge of Mott Haven, Heketi Community Charter School enrolls 22 percent ELL students, just meeting its target. Half of its classrooms are dual language, where instruction alternates, generally bi-weekly, between English and Spanish.

On a Wednesday morning in mid-September, Heketi’s principal David Rosas sat in the school’s combined gym-cafeteria and translated back and forth during his weekly Q-and-A session with parents. Around half of the dozen parents that showed up did not speak English. One parent questioned the value of teachers speaking in Spanish during class time (her child was not in the dual language track). Rosas explained that teachers are free, if they can and think it necessary, to use a student’s preferred language.

The school’s ELL specialist, Cristy Cuellar-Lezcano, attributes the school’s large proportion of ELL students to its mission: “We look at the things that are here – linguistically, culturally and racially – and we take all that into our mission to serve the kids in the neighborhood,” she said.

In contrast, Success Academy promotes a one-size-fits-all curriculum that it promotes with free materials online and implements across all of its schools.

Proponents of charter schools are quick to point out that there’s limited evidence that charter schools are pushing ELL students out the door. Instead, it’s because parents aren’t applying, said Marcus Winters, author of a report on the issue for the Manhattan Institute, a right-leaning think tank.

At Success Academy, at least, parents may have good reason not to. A video, covertly filmed by a teaching assistant and published by the New York Times in 2016, shows a teacher raising her voice and then angrily ripping a sheet of paper in front of a first grader’s face after the child hesitated while counting to three.

Further, many parents are unable to complete Success Academy’s intricate enrollment process, which involves a series of introductory meetings that can’t be missed, said Nelson Mar, an education lawyer at Bronx Legal Services. This could be due to a lack of translation services, he said. He has attended parent meetings at Success Academy where no translator was present. 

Of the applicants selected into Success Academy schools by random lottery, 82 percent attend the first welcome meeting but only 50 percent actually elect to enroll their child according to a recent study released by MDRC, a nonprofit that conducts social policy research.

For the Success Academy school in Mott Haven, ELL enrollment numbers are only getting worse. In the last four years the proportion of students that are ELL has been cut in half. 

We make a tremendous effort to reach out to English language learners, as well as all students, to let the community know about this excellent educational opportunity in their neighborhood,” a Success Academy spokesperson said in a statement, citing their various outreach methods including multilingual fliers and mailings.

At the end of the day, the simple explanation for why parents of ELL students aren’t enrolling their kids in charter schools could be the best one. Madeline Mavrogordato, a researcher at Michigan State University, explained, “If they think their kids are not going to be in a warm and welcoming environment, they’re not going to go to that school.”

Parents wait to pick up their children outside the Success Academy elementary and middle school in Mott Haven. Credit: Lucas Manfield

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