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Mass. Law Says New Charter Schools Must Reach Out to ELLs

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick signed into law this week a bill that includes provisions for what charter school operators must say in applications for how they will recruit, enroll, and retain English-language learners. The bill (Senate, No. 2247) aims to close the achievement gaps between richer and poorer communities in Massachusetts, according to the Associated Press and the Boston Globe. My colleague Lesli Maxwell is reporting about how the bill could put Massachusetts in a more favorable position to receive Race to the Top funds for a story that she'll write later this week.

The law says that charter school applications should be approved only for operators that have a record of running at least one school or similar program that has had academic success with students from the following categories: those eligible for free- or reduced-price lunches, students with disabilities, or English-language learners. The bill further says that if a charter operator selects English-language learners from this list of categories, it must further show in its application that the operator has had success with ELLs who have the same language-proficiency level as those it plans to serve in the proposed school. (The applications will be received for charter schools proposed in school districts that are among the 10 percent most low-performing in the state.)

The recruitment plan must also spell out strategies for how the charter school will attract, enroll, and retain a student population that is similar to the schools from which the charter school will draw its enrollment. For example, the charter school must aim to have the same or greater percentage of ELLs at the same language-proficiency level as comparison schools do. If a charter school will be opened in a district with 10 percent or more ELLs, its recruitment strategies must include outreach in the most prevalent home languages of families in the district.

These provisions in the bill for charter schools and ELLs are similar to those recommended by the Somerville, Mass.-based Multicultural Education, Training, and Advocacy Inc., an advocacy group for ELLs, in an issue brief in September. I wrote a story then for EdWeek about how charter schools were being criticized for not enrolling as many ELLs as regular public schools in the state.

The law signed this week also requires schools that are creating turnaround plans that have programs for ELLs to show how they will address achievement gaps for ELLs and other students. The plans need to show, for example, what kind of professional development will be provided for teachers on how to work with ELLs. It permits school districts to choose "alternative" programs for ELLs. Turnaround schools also need to establish parent advisory councils to make recommendations on how to address the needs of ELLs, the law says.

Alternative programs could include bilingual education, even though voters in Massachusetts passed a ballot measure in 2002 that greatly curtailed that educational method in the state, according to Jonathan Palumbo, a spokesman for the state's department of education.

Massachusetts Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez, a Democratic, who pushed for ELLs to be included in turnaround plans, said his goals for doing so were to better include parents in the process, push schools to figure out what they need to do to train teachers to work well with ELLs, and to give school districts more flexibility to find ways to "teach ELLs as quickly and effectively as possible."

How to best educate ELLs has been a "divisive" issue in Massachusetts, Sanchez told me in an interview. "I've been a lone voice on this issue for a long time," he said.

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