Working with English Language Learners (ELLs) in the Charter School Context

December 14, 2011

The number of ELL students throughout the United States is increasing yearly and it is the responsibility of our schools to educate these students. 2.9% of the student population of Pennsylvania is ELLs. This increases greatly in the urban areas. Charter schools continue to enroll very few ELLs which have caused many to question the sector’s commitment to equity and diversity in public education and, in some instances, to blatantly accuse the sector of overtly discriminating against these students. Since the immigrant population is growing steadily across the United States, it is expected that charter school enrollment will reflect this trend. The question, thus, becomes: What should charters be doing to increase their ELL enrollment while ensuring that these students acquire English language proficiency and achieve long-term academic success?

There are several steps that schools can take to meet the needs of ELL students:

1. Make all staff aware of the legal requirements for serving ELL students.

An ELL student is one who speaks another language at home AND is having difficulties achieving academic success. Being an ELL is not a learning disability and students should not be placed in special education for this reason. The Home Language Survey (HLIS) should be administered at school to all students by a certified staff member. This survey should never be sent home for completion.

2. Support teachers in their instructional efforts by making professional development a priority.

Teachers should use the primary language when possible and use content-based ESL instruction to provide models for making the content comprehensible. Teachers should integrate instructional talk with visuals, body language, slower rates of speech, and high frequency vocabulary. Teachers should understand their learners’ history and culture in order to draw upon prior knowledge. Most importantly, teachers should allow the students to talk more than the teachers in order to improve upon expressive language and idiom acquisition.

3. Allocate resources equitably.

Charter schools must demonstrate that they have a well-defined program to support academic success and English language proficiency among ELLs. Schools may need to employ ELL teachers as instructional resources. ELLs should never be “farmed out” to an assistant or untrained paraprofessional. The most experienced teachers should be matched with the children who need them the most.

4. Integrate the ELL program into the daily school regime.

ELL students should not be seperated into a perifpheral program. Full inclusion should take place whenever possible.

5. Monitor and evaluate the ELL program.

As soon as the program is in place, the monitoring and evaluation process should begin. Charter schools must determine if their ELL students are showing adequate progress in English acquisition, reading, and mathematics.

6. Involve parents.

Make it evident through visuals that another language or languages are represented in the school. These can include signs such as “Welcome” or “Visitors Must Check in at the Office.” Art work representing various cultures is also a way to welcome families. If possible, hire bilingual paraprofessionals. They are exempt from NCLB’s “highly qualified” requirements if they work soley as translators or on parental involvement issues. And you can always offer ESL classes for parents.


PCPCS plans to follow through with more information and training on ELL students throughout 2012.


This is the 2nd in a series by Jennifer Donohue, the Education Director for PCPCS,  on her notes from a workshop at Harvard University from November 10-13 entitled, “Charter Schools:  Practices for High Performance.”  Over the four days, particpants worked with Harvard professors and other successful leaders to delve into what it takes to make a charter school high performing.  The workshop addressed topics such as the role of the Board of Trustees, how to work with English Language Learners, achieving quality instruction, strategic decision-making, and much more. 

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