Picking the best students and expelling challenging ones, such as English learners, are two common allegations made against charter schools. A bill designed to address these concerns is sitting on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk, awaiting his signature this week. But here in Richmond, one charter school is leading in academic achievement even though nearly 90 percent of its students don’t speak native English.
The Richmond chapter of Leadership Public Schools is one of the top-performers in the region, according to latest results of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) test. About 90 percent of students at the school met or nearly met the state standard in English with 27 percent exceeding the standard, both significantly higher than most district schools.
The catch is that only 57 students at the school were identified as native English speakers, just 10 percent of LPS’ total enrollment, a number lower than other top-performing charters.
Sharon Kim, an English teacher at the Richmond chapter of LPS, said two of the six English teachers at the school are non-native speakers, as well as a lot of the support staff.
“I share my journey as a reader: How I wasn’t born in the United States and then immigrated, the struggles that I had with reading growing up, and how I managed to overcome that,” Kim said.
At district non-charter schools, more than 40 percent of students failed to meet the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) test’s standard for English in 2017, a result higher than any other individual charter in the district.
Conducted annually as part of the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) system, SBAC is designed to monitor students’ learning progress through standardized assessments in math and English.
Source: California Department of Education
The bar chart above separates students into five groups based on their proficiency in English.
In order to determine students’ initial proficiency, parents are asked to fill out the Home Language Survey on the most common language used at home. If the only language reported is English, the student would be categorized as “English Only.”
If a language other than English is reported but the student passes initial assessment using the California English Language Development Test (CELDT), he or she would be deemed as “initial English proficient.”
“Reclassified English proficient” students refer to those who are first identified as English learners but subsequently reclassified as proficient using the CELDT, teacher evaluation, parental opinion and student’s performance of basic skills.
Dr. Linda Delgado, charter oversight coordinator at the West Contra Costa Unified School District, acknowledged the school’s achievement and suggested that the district would learn from its approach.
“If you start with all the advantages, and you’re an advanced student, there’s no surprise there,” Delgado said. “But if you start with lots of challenges and become an advanced student, then that’s something to talk about.”
About 98 percent of students in the district participated in the most recent statewide SBAC test, according to Alicia Bowman, executive director of research, accountability and data at the district. Non-native English learners who have attended schools in the United States for less than 12 months are exempted from taking the language assessment.
During Bowman’s presentation about the test scores at the district school board meeting last week, members were saddened by the poor results. Board president Liz Block said the district should take actions and learn from charter schools instead of demonizing them.
Not every student who applies to Leadership Public Schools in Richmond can sit in its classrooms and learn. According to Principal Shawn Benjamin, the school receives up to 300 applications every year, but can only accept about 150 students into its freshman class.
A random, public drawing determines admissions for charter schools if it cannot accommodate everyone who applied. Returning students and those who reside in the district shall be prioritized, according to state law.
Assembly Bill 1360, which passed both houses of the Legislature this session and awaits the governor’s approval this week, would disallow limiting enrollment access for certain groups, including non-native English learners, economically disadvantaged students, and students who underperform academically. The deadline to approve or veto the bill is October 15.
The bill comes on the heels of an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) report last August, which stated that more than 20 percent of state charter schools have exclusionary admission policies. Specifically, the ACLU says these schools set inequitable requirements on English proficiency, academic performance and parent involvement.
Two charter schools in the West Contra Costa district — John Henry High School and Benito Juarez Elementary School — were among the 253 identified by ACLU due to “barriers to non-citizens.” Both are operated by Oakland-based Amethod Public Schools.
The organization also runs Richmond Charter Academy, its first school to open outside Oakland. According to Delgado, all three charters require students to write an essay as part of the admission process.
However, Jorge Lopez, chief executive officer at Amethod Public Schools, said the essays are not part of any admission process. Students are asked to write about what they want to achieve at the school in these essays and submit them after enrollment, according to Lopez.
Lopez questioned the premise of the ACLU study and called the results arbitrary. For instance, he noted that Richmond Charter Academy, founded in 2013, was not listed as a charter with exclusionary policies by ACLU despite sharing the same admission rules.
“We have six different schools, and they all have the same admission policies,” Lopez said.
Most California schools comply with the new admission rules listed in AB 1360, such as prioritizing siblings of existing students, residents of the district and children of teachers, staff and founders. But the hierarchy of preferences varies across charter schools in the district.
The Richmond chapter of Leadership Public Schools, for instance, puts homeless and foster youth third on its list of priority students, behind siblings of existing students and children of staff. And John Henry High School guarantees admission for these two groups by exempting them from the lottery process.
Although charter schools are not allowed to impose admission requirements to exclude certain groups of students, concerns have been raised about charter schools admitting students more likely to achieve high academic performances.
Nonprofit organization Education Resource Strategies and the Oakland Achieves Partnership, a coalition of education and community groups in the Bay Area, released a report in June looking at the demographics of students in the Oakland Unified School District. The results indicated that high-performing elementary and middle school graduates tend to continue their education in charter schools instead of district-run schools.
The report also pointed out that about 12 percent of students in district-run schools need special education services, versus 7 percent in charters.
Charter schools in WCCUSD, on the other hand, are admitting roughly the same percentage of English learners — and an even higher proportion of socioeconomically disadvantaged students — for the 2016-17 school year, based on enrollment data provided by the California Department of Education.
But board member Madeline Kronenberg, who has been vocal about the detrimental impact of charter schools in the district, said it’s also important to study the recruitment strategies that the charter community implements. There may be factors not reflected in data or enrollment policies, such as parent involvement, according to Kronenberg.
“The enrollment policies of charter schools are dictated by the enrollment strategies that they employ. They go to certain places to ask certain people to find students who are interested,” Kronenberg explained. “They are implementing strategies that are targeted.”