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These charter schools say they’re immigrant-friendly

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    Photo: Matt Seaver




When Debbie Wei came on as the founding principal of the Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures (FACTS) Charter School in Chinatown, she knew what her first big capital expense would be.

Simultaneous translation equipment.

“This was a statement on our part,” said Wei. “Not to have basic communication with parents is criminal.” So now, parent meetings often look like UN sessions.

Throughout nearly three decades working with Asian communities outside and inside the school system, Wei had grown increasingly frustrated at what she saw as official indifference to language access issues. She saw too many parents unable to participate in their children’s education because they couldn’t communicate with their children’s teachers and principals.

As a result, she became increasingly intrigued by the possibility of bringing to Chinatown a charter school – independent, but publicly funded – that could focus on immigrants and be more flexible in addressing their needs. Two local nonprofits, Asian Americans United and the Philadelphia Folklore Project, started planning FACTS in 2001 and opened it in 2005, welcoming families not just from Asian countries but from all over Philadelphia and the world.

FACTS is not alone. There is a small but growing group of charters specifically catering to immigrant and English language learner (ELL) communities.

The city’s 63 charter schools still enroll just a fraction of the more than 12,000 ELL students in Philadelphia; most of these schools have no English language learners on their rolls.

But between 2003 and 2007, the enrollment of ELLs in charter schools increased from 454 to 624 students. More than 80 percent are concentrated in four schools founded specifically to serve them: FACTS, Mariana Bracetti, Eugenio Maria de Hostos, and Esperanza Academy.

The number of charter-enrolled ELLs will grow further this year with the opening of two additional schools focused on their needs: Antonia Pantoja, founded by ASPIRA, and Pan American, founded by Congreso de Latinos Unidos.

Congreso’s board members had heard from parents that they wanted a school with a “dual language program … involving the community and integrating the culture of our students,” said Wanda Novales, Pan American principal and a former District teacher and administrator.

Immigrant parents often choose charters for the same reasons as other parents: a perception that they are safer and more focused on their specific concerns. While not all these immigrant-friendly charters are showing high academic performance, all of them have substantial waiting lists.

Habtom Weldeyesus, a native of Eritrea who provides therapeutic staff support in schools, said he was frustrated with conditions at his sons’ elementary school in West Philadelphia.

His sons, now enrolled at FACTS, are assigned more work and have become better organized, he said.

Plus, he said, the school “is equipped with better facilities and better teachers” and its English as a Second Language program – his family’s native language is Tigrinya – is more intensive.

Another FACTS parent, cabdriver Tian Zhang, who is from the Fujian province of China, said that the school’s focus on communicating with parents is key. “They pay a lot of attention to all different cultures,” he said, and provide “comfortable surroundings for all those different races coming together.”

Except for FACTS, all the city’s ELL- and immigrant-focused charters serve Latino communities, but each in a different way. Esperanza Academy, a high school, emphasizes English acquisition while it honors students’ native cultures through arts and other programs. De Hostos, on the other hand, is fully bilingual.

All offer some additional services to families. The parent organization at Esperanza offers financial and legal advice. Pan American will have a social worker on staff.

“When you’re transitioning and you’re an immigrant, you have to come in and figure out the system,” said Novales. Like Wei, Novales hopes that Pan American’s outreach will send a positive message to parents about the kind of support they can expect.

Paying for these services, however, is a challenge. Students who don’t speak English, and whose families don’t speak English, are the most expensive to educate, according to experts. Pennsylvania’s costing-out study last fall put the cost of teaching an ELL student at between 1.4 and 2.4 times that of a typical student, depending on a district’s size.

But schools teaching ELLs, whether district-run or charter, don’t yet get that kind of additional funding. And charters, per capita, get less federal aid targeted to ELLs than regular public schools, Wei said.

Even so, charter schools have some advantages over regular public schools, most notably the increased flexibility with curriculum and scheduling. Esperanza, for instance, uses its art programs, subject classes, and extracurricular activities to promote cultural identity.

Weldeyesus said that at FACTS, his sons are being encouraged to keep their native language instead of being pressured to assimilate. “FACTS gave them the courage to be more interested in their first language,” he said.

But the high cost of properly serving ELLs can often deter charters from reaching out to this population. The only charter school not focused on ELL students that has a large enrollment of these students is Community Academy, which primarily serves truants and struggling students. It is located in Hunting Park, a predominantly Latino community with a high dropout rate. A new coordinator of ELL services stepped up testing last school year and increased the number of students getting services from 40 to more than 100.

As yet, there are no charters serving Latinos in South Philadelphia, where there is a growing population of Mexicans, whose needs and circumstances are different from the Puerto Ricans in the neighborhoods to their north.

Zac Steele, a parent organizer there with the grassroots organization JUNTOS, sees potential pluses and minuses in an ELL-focused charter school. He worries that charters would take resources from local public schools, where most immigrant students will continue to enroll. “I’d hate to see services not improve in neighborhood schools and people fighting … to get kids into charter schools,” he said.

On the other hand, he said, “As a teacher, I like charter schools and I’ve certainly met families here who want to send their kids to [them].”

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