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Through Charter School, English Language Learners In The Spotlight02:14
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March is the month parents and students try their luck with charter schools. Charters are publicly funded, but independent from the school district, and are praised for raising test scores and graduation rates for low-income students.

But they are also under scrutiny for not educating many of the most challenging students. Some of those are children whose families don't speak English at home. One Boston charter has decided to build a new school devoted to these students.

In the city of Boston, nearly 30 percent of students don't speak English well. As a group, they are doing poorly in the city’s public schools.

In the city of Boston, nearly 30 percent of students don't speak English well. The government calls them English Language Learners. As a group, they are doing poorly in the city’s public schools. Only about half of them graduate and they have poor test scores. The U.S. Department of Justice found the school system was not providing adequate services to thousands of these students.

Alan Safran runs MATCH Public Charter School. It’s considered one of the best schools in the city. However, like most charter schools in Boston, MATCH didn't enroll many English Language Learners.

When MATCH got permission to open a new school, it designed its entire program around children learning English as a second language.

“We have Spanish, Cape Verdean Creole, Haitian Creole, Chinese, Somali, Vietnamese and Portuguese,” Safran said.

Safran is pointing to a collection of Boston maps, highlighting different neighborhoods based on the density of immigrants and refugees living there. This is where they organized recruitment for the new school.

“So, where we had people who speak those languages, we'd send them into those neighborhoods,” he said.

But Safran said the best results came from a change in the law. Before last year, charter schools couldn't get information about students enrolled in public schools. No names, addresses, nothing. But now, public schools have to share contact information for students and their parents, including the languages they speak at home.

“So, we were able to get an official document to the parents, saying, 'you have a choice and if you'd like to take advantage of this option, apply.' And that's been the biggest breakthrough,” Safran said.

At this week’s lottery, Adilenia Alcantara sat close to the front of the room. She had heard about charters from her girlfriends, but didn't know about MATCH until she received the notice in the mail. She likes the focus on immigrant children.

In Spanish, she said, “From what I understand, this school will better prepare her kids for college. And that's the dream they're chasing.”

Alcantara is from the Dominican Republic. She lives in Dorchester and sells Amway for a living. She's entered two kids into the lottery for second grade. Her odds aren't good. Three hundred kids were applying for 50 seats in the class.

Alcantara said the process isn't fair.

“There should be seats for everyone who applied. All of these parents want their kids to attend the best schools. If this is one of the best schools, then everyone should have the opportunity to study here, not just a small group.”

School officials encouraged parents to make noise if their children's names were called. Especially if they got one of the 50 guaranteed seats.

If only everyone were so lucky.

Alcantara's kids didn't get the guaranteed spots. The best they could do was 17th on the waiting list, for one of her children.

“It's better than nothing,” she said.

MATCH officials say it's hard to see parents' disappointment. Safran said his school is only part of the solution for the children of immigrants and refugees.

“We just are now, for the first time, seeing people that charters in Boston haven't seen," he said. "We wanted to see these people forever. We didn't know how to reach them — 475 of them found us. We want to have their kids. We want them all. We'd like ‘em all, but we don't have space for them all.”

The kids who didn’t get into MATCH will likely return to Boston Public Schools. English Language Learners can hope for some improvements there. After the Justice Department's investigation, the district vowed to overhaul its services for students learning English.

This program aired on March 11, 2011.

Bianca Vázquez Toness Twitter Reporter
Bianca Vázquez Toness was formerly a report for WBUR.

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