NYC Schools, Says Chancellor Fariña, Are “Not Welcoming ESL Students”: How to Tame the “Wild West?”

At a town hall meeting in Dyker Heights two weeks ago, NYC Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña “expressed dismay,” according to the Bensonhurst Bean, that some traditional district schools are “not welcoming ESL students and instead telling them to go to another school.”

It’s gratifying to hear the Chancellor approach this issue with honesty and compassion. So often anti-reform crusaders throw shade on public charter schools  for “counseling out” English language learners (ELL). But, as Ms. Fariña confirms, the issue pervades all public schools, both traditional and charter.  We can do better.  One obstacle, however, that confounds traditional ELL programs while sparing charters is a set of state and union rules that interfere with effective learning and teaching.

In New York City more than 142,000 children are learning English, about 13% out of a total enrollment of 1.1 million students. According to Chalkbeat, “only 41 percent of the city’s ELL students graduate in four years and 22 percent drop out.” On the most recent state standardized tests students scored unacceptably low: 4% of ELL students were proficient in language arts and 13% were proficient in math. Perhaps this is one area that lends itself to Albert Shanker’s original conceptions of charter schools as “laboratories of innovations” where new practices  get trial runs and, if successful, are incorporated into the traditional sector.

Let’s think of NYC traditional schools as a very large control group.  This cohort was hit with a set of new state regulations last Spring. These include a requirement that  classes have an licensed language arts teacher present in any class where even one student is learning English (schools used to be able to pull out students for language instruction) and another that requires schools to create programs in which students are taught in two languages. The New York Times quotes Evelyn DeJesus, a vice president at the United Federation of Teachers: “I’m telling you, the whole city is out of compliance. It’s like the Wild West out there.”

Example: Bengali is the fourth most common language among NYC’s ELL students but as of this past summer there were only three Bengali programs in the whole city because there’s such a scarcity of Bengali-speaking language arts teachers.

Another major obstacles for schools is reconciling the new regulations  with union work rules.  From the Times:

Union rules are also a hurdle: If teachers switch licenses to become English language specialists, they lose their seniority, which could make them vulnerable when a school trims its staff.

Charter schools, our experimental cohort, handle ELL student needs differently because they are free from union rules like seniority-based job security. There are no disincentives for teachers who switch subject areas and, thus, charters have more flexibility in staffing classrooms.  Charter schools  also declassify students as ELL at a faster pace, just as they more quickly declassify children as special education students. If done with care and integrity, this faster-tracked mainstreaming decreases segregation and eases social assimilation.

Ironically, anti-charter folk are quick to accuse charter schools of the transgression that Chancellor Farina confirms happens in non-charter schools: “not welcoming ESL students and instead telling them to go to another school.” However, a recent study from the Manhattan Institute found that, while ELL students are less likely  than native speakers to apply to charter schools in “gateway” grades (typical transitional points between, say, elementary school and middle school), they are also less likely to leave their charter schools than ELL students in traditional schools.  And they are more likely to enter charter schools in “non-gateway” grades.

For example, KIPP NYC reports that “among students classified as English-language learners, 82 percent who originally enrolled in their charters for kindergarten remained in their schools four years later, compared with 70 percent of such students in traditional public schools.” Currently, 17% of KIPP students are ELL.

Of course, amending state regulations to comply with reality is as difficult as negotiating changes in union rules. But maybe we should try harder.  The Times story quotes a Bangladeshi mother named Shamsun Nahar whose son, now a high school senior in a traditional school in the Bronx, still struggles with English and is “socially isolated.”

“The whole point of our struggling to be able to come here and raise our family here, to leave everything behind, is primarily because of education,” Ms. Nahar said through a translator at a South Asian organization called DRUM. Yet her son, she said, is “already being left behind.”

This is a teachable moment for NYC schools, as Chancellor Fariña recognized in that town hall in Dyker Heights. In this case, useful lessons can be gleaned from successful “experiments” in city charter schools.

What do you think?

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