Originally published in The Examiner 11/18/2009
By Collin Hitt
Hispanic students and English learners have not typically fared well in America’s public schools. This presents unique challenges for educators in Chicago. Sometime during the next ten years Hispanic students will become the largest ethnic group in the city’s public schools, assuming current enrollment trends continue.
Every year English learner enrollments reach a new record high in Chicago Public Schools. Eighty-five percent of English learners are Hispanic. Chicago’s economic future depends upon the successful education of these students.
To meet this challenge, in a city where old public schools haven’t worked to anyone’s satisfaction, new organizations have taken the opportunity to open their own public schools called “charter schools.” Many of these schools have been opened by Hispanic community organizations, while others have been started by innovative organizations with intentions to serve a diverse number of students and communities.
Several consecutive high-quality studies have shown that Illinois charter schools, as a whole, are outperforming traditional public schools even after controlling for demographic factors. The demand from parents also suggests that the schools are making a difference: 14,000 students are on waiting lists to get into charter schools in Chicago.
Community organizations and education reformers are growing louder in their demand for more charter schools to be opened throughout the city, especially in heavily Hispanic areas. The calls have been particularly loud from the United Neighborhood Organization (UNO), which released a report earlier this year showing that Hispanic students are disproportionately affected by school overcrowding in Chicago. The report also found that an unduly small number of charter schools have been opened in Hispanic communities, as compared to other neighborhoods.
UNO knows first-hand the difference that charter schools can make; the organization operates charter schools in Chicago. In total, UNO runs 8 charter school campuses in Chicago and has secured capital funding sufficient to double that number to 16. This expansion has caught national attention, yet still only scratches the larger need of Chicago families to have more schooling options. UNO’s report suggested that 28 more charter elementary schools must be opened in order to serve families whose only current choice is their nearby, overcrowded school.
Schools that open in these communities, of course, are very likely to have high enrollments of English learners and Hispanic students. Charter schools that fit this profile are already succeeding in Chicago, as shown by a recent report I issued from the Illinois Policy Institute and the Lexington Institute. My review of campus-level data shows that English learners and Hispanic students attending charters with higher-than-average enrollments of either group routinely outperformed their peers citywide. Simply comparing the grade-by-grade results of English learners shows that students at these charters performed above district averages in 83.8 percent of matchups. Hispanic students did so 65.9 percent of the time.
Currently, charter schools with high enrollments of English learners or Hispanic students constitute a clear minority of charter campuses in Chicago. Groups like UNO want to change that fact, and the performance report suggests they should be able to do so: for example, English learners at UNO campuses exceed the district-wide average 91.7 percent of the time. Other home-grown charter schools such as Chicago International Charter School stand out as well. In most instances, these schools have used their flexibility as charter schools to implement longer school days, stronger discipline codes and English immersion programs.
To date, broad studies have shown that charter schools are working well citywide. Now we know that, as reformers focus on specific neighborhoods and communities, charter schools can improve education for English learners and Hispanic students. This is welcome news. These children deserve to have – indeed our state needs them to have – a choice of great schools.