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Charter school focuses on teaching youngsters English

New Jamaica Plain charter school’s mission is to help students overcome language barriers

Tutor Annie Query talked with Malia Cajuste at the Match Community Day Charter School in Jamaica Plain.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Tutor Annie Query talked with Malia Cajuste at the Match Community Day Charter School in Jamaica Plain.

The task before 4-year-old Jeury Sanchez was spelled out on a vocabulary card and recited by a tutor: “Hop.’’

The preschooler at Match Community Day Charter School, who speaks Spanish at home, scanned a tray of letters on a table, grabbed an “H,’’ and placed it in front of him. Then Jeury was stumped. With scrunched eyebrows, he slowly sounded out the word, tapping a finger to his thumb to each letter sound: “hhhuh . . . aaaw . . . pppuh.’’

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His eyes lit up and he quickly reached for the “O’’ and the “P.’’

One letter at a time, students at this new Jamaica Plain school are working to polish their English-language skills through intensive tutoring they receive each day. Nearly 80 percent of the 100 students here lack fluency in English.

The high enrollment of these students makes Match Community Day stand out among charter schools statewide, which often are accused by critics of ignoring English-language learners, a group that is struggling immensely across the state and can be a drain on standardized test scores. Most charter schools in Boston, for instance, teach a dozen or fewer of these students.

It is by no coincidence that so many wound up at Match Community Day: It opened specifically to teach them. That bold mission has garnered high praise from Governor Deval Patrick, who last November declared Match Community Day a “new-era’’ charter school and “a grand experiment for us to learn from.’’

“Match Community Day is living disproof that charter schools won’t serve English-language learners,’’ said Paul Reville, the state’s education secretary, in an interview. “It’s an important achievement.’’

Opening this type of charter school was a major goal of a two-year-old state education law that allows for the dou bling of charter school seats in districts with the lowest MCAS scores - so long as those new schools strive to educate a student population reflective of the districts.

Some education advocates say that charter schools - independently run public schools - could be a lifeline for English-language learners because many charter schools have propelled other disadvantaged student populations to great academic heights.

But few charter schools statewide have any expertise with English-language learners. The US Education Department is investigating whether the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education may be failing to ensure that charter schools are equipped to educate them and are thereby violating the civil rights of these students.

For years, charter schools have struggled to enroll English-language learners, despite advertising in foreign-language newspapers and canvassing immigrant enclaves. One of the biggest challenges, charter school leaders have said, is that immigrant parents tend to be unfamiliar with charter schools and do not realize they are public schools that cost nothing to attend.

Match Community Day confronted a similar landscape when it initially began recruiting students in fall 2010, as it awaited final state approval to open, which came in February 2011. Foreign-language newspaper advertisements and informational booths set up at ethnic festivals yielded few applications filled out in a language other than English.

That changed when the school took advantage of a powerful recruitment tool that became available under the state law that allowed for new charter schools: access to school district mailing lists, which in Boston indicate the language spoken at home, enabling charter schools to mail directly to immigrant families in their native language.

“Our application numbers really increased when we did the mailings,’’ said Kate Carpenter Bernier, the school’s principal. “It was gratifying to see people wanted to come to the school.’’

Ultimately, Match enrolled dozens of students who speak Arabic, Cape Verdean Creole, Chinese, Haitian Creole, Portuguese, Spanish, Somali, or Vietnamese.

In interviews, several parents said that while the school’s mission of serving English-language learners caught their attention, they were also attracted by the eight-hour school day, the extensive tutoring, and the reputation of strict discipline that charter schools across Boston are known for.

“He’s more focused than he was before,’’ said Fatumo Ahmed of her 7-year-old son, who is in the second grade and previously attended a Boston public school that closed last June. She also has a 4-year-old son enrolled at Match.

The school is a partnership between two of the most successful charter schools in Massachusetts: Community Day Charter School in Lawrence, a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school that specializes in English-language learning instruction, and Match Charter School, a secondary school in Boston known nationally for its intensive one-on-one tutoring.

Match Community Day has only two grade levels, preschool and second grade. It will gradually expand to grade 12. Students attend for eight hours, and second-graders also go on Saturdays.

One recent morning, Carpenter Bernier greeted students as they arrived in their white shirts, khaki pants, and turquoise sweaters - offering each of them a hug, while asking them, “Why are you here?’’

With varying degrees of enthusiasm, students responded, “I am here to learn.’’

Throughout the building, words on signs are generally accompanied by a picture, in acknowledgement that all students do not read English fluently. State law strongly encourages the teaching of subjects in English, using a student’s native tongue only sparingly.

In developing its programs, Match Community Day sought advice from the Boston public schools, which are overhauling their programs to bring them into compliance with federal civil rights laws.

“I welcome the competition,’’ said Eileen de los Reyes, assistant superintendent for English-language learners for the Boston public schools. “The hope is we can learn from each other.’’

It remains unclear whether Match Community Day will boost achievement of English-language learners above that of the city’s school system. Match Community Day will administer the MCAS exams for the first time next year.

The school, though, is already experiencing academic challenges with second-graders, nearly all of whom came from other schools last year with serious learning deficits. While they have made gains, most are at least a grade level behind, prompting the school to schedule classes for July, and that has created a stir among some parents.

But more than a dozen parents who braved a snowstorm one night for a parent council meeting appeared to warm to the idea after Carpenter Bernier stressed that ground could be lost during a two-month summer break.

“To keep them on track, I think summer school is necessary,’’ said Kimesha Rogers, a mother of a preschooler and a second-grader. The focus and energy here are great.’’

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.
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