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Boston Charter Schools: A Limited Opportunity

imageJust like his parents, who immigrated to Boston from the Dominican Republic in the late 1980s for improved economic opportunity, Andys Gonzalez is pursuing a better life for himself. For Andys, this pursuit led him to attend Edward Brooke Charter School in Roslindale. 

Andys is one of an increasing number of English language learners (ELLs) who have chosen to enroll in charter schools. Research shows that charter schools serve ELLs and other students with special needs more effectively. However, many students are unable to access the higher quality of services that these schools provide because of the Massachusetts charter cap. It’s time to lift the cap on charter schools so that more students, and particularly those with the highest levels of need, can attend the best schools. 

Andys was first identified as an English language learner in elementary school. Then, in fifth grade, he “won” the charter lottery. Attending Edward Brooke in middle school helped Andys overcome his ELL status. “I remember in 7th grade when my English became professional English. …If I hadn’t gone to Brooke, I wouldn’t have a voracity for words. ” 

Andys credits his experience at Brooke for igniting his passion for learning, and for preparing him for success. Attending Edward Brooke “has definitely opened many doors for me and shaped me into who I am today.” The academic gains that Andys made during his time at Brooke helped prepare him for success at the Roxbury Latin School, where he is receiving a full scholarship. When he graduates, Andys wants to go to college to study law and psychology. 

Andys’s story is increasingly common in Boston. Charter schools like Edward Brooke are serving Boston’s highest-need students, including ELLs, in increasing numbers. According to data from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, more ELLs enrolled in the entry grades in Boston’s charter schools in 2013-14 than in any previous year. This is partially due to improved recruitment practices. Charter schools are now able to mail flyers to nearly all Boston families who have students in the grade levels they serve.

It is also because word is getting out that charter schools provide a great education, particularly to ELL students like Andys. An MIT report from October 2013 demonstrated that students who attend charter schools are more likely to score “proficient” or “advanced” on the MCAS than their peers in traditional public schools. This positive effect remains true for high-need students, including special education students, and is even stronger among low-income students and ELLs. (Disclosure: My organization, NewSchools Venture Fund, helped sponsor this MIT report). 

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Improved recruitment and a reputation for quality have increased ELL enrollment in Boston charter schools. This year, 44% more ELL students than last year enrolled in entry grades in these schools. The percentage of ELL students in entry grades increased markedly, from 13% to 18%. Among replicating charters schools, these numbers increased by an even greater margin. (Replicating charter schools are those that opened new schools following the 2010 Achievement Gap Act, which effectively doubled the charter cap in the city of Boston.) These schools increased their ELL enrollment levels from 15% to 22% of students in entry grades.  

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The deplorable reality is that many families seeking better lives for their children will soon be denied this opportunity. On March 12th, Edward Brooke held its annual enrollment lottery, as did many other Boston charter schools. Lottery winners, like Andys, will have improved life chances. Lottery losers are bound to languish on the waiting list, which, at Edward Brooke, tops 3,000 families each year.

Edward Brooke recently tried to help its waitlisted families. In 2012, Brooke submitted an application to open an additional school. This new school, which would have been the 4th in the Edward Brooke network, would have provided relief to hundreds of families who are seeking the best for their children. However, in spite of its track record as one of the highest-performing schools in Massachusetts, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) denied Brooke’s application in February 2013.

It’s time to stop preventing families from pursuing the opportunities they deserve. Charter schools can and do serve students with diverse needs. Our state legislators should lift the charter cap and enable more charter schools to open so that more students like Andys Gonzalez can be the beneficiaries of an excellent education.