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US to probe Boston charter schools

Focus on students with language needs

Federal civil rights attorneys have launched an investigation into whether the state is discriminating against students who do not speak English fluently by failing to ensure that new charter schools are equipped to educate the students.

The investigation focuses on the state’s approval in February of eight charter schools in Boston, according to a letter the US Education Department sent yesterday to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which oversaw the approval process. English-language learners have among the lowest achievement rates in the state and are one of the fastest-growing student populations.

Few operators of the charter schools have a track record of working with the students, even though a state law enacted last year stresses that they should possess these credentials, according to a complaint by a Somerville nonprofit that sparked the probe. The Globe received copies of the letter and the complaint.


Most of the new charter schools are being developed by existing Boston charter schools that teach few of those students. Just 3 percent of 5,800 students enrolled in Boston charter schools last year lacked fluency in English, compared with 30 percent of the nearly 57,000 in the city’s school system, according to the complaint.

“If charter schools are the kind of education the Commonwealth wants to promote, it has to be equally open to all kids,’’ said Roger Rice of Multicultural Education Training and Advocacy Inc., the nonprofit that filed the complaint. Rice’s group organized under a state law to protect the rights of students with limited English proficiency.

Mitchell Chester, the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, defended the approval process for charter schools, which usually operate independently of local school districts and are publicly funded.

“I believe we have been quite diligent and deliberate in ensuring that new charter schools in fact are being run by people who are recruiting representative populations of the communities they serve and have a track record to serve that population effectively,’’ Chester said in an interview last night.


In notifying the state yesterday, the US Education Department asked for a range of information, such as the criteria for approving charter schools and how and why state education administrators determined that the applicants demonstrated success and expertise in teaching students with language barriers. The federal agency gave state education officials 15 days to turn over the information.

The investigation is the latest in a series of federal crackdowns on civil rights violations in Massachusetts involving English-language learners.

In July, the US Justice Department determined that at least 45,000 teachers across the state lacked proper training to teach students with language barriers because the state failed to mandate it. Federal investigators also have found wide-ranging deficiencies in the last three years in Boston, Somerville, and Worcester.

“Massachusetts is failing to achieve success’’ with English-language learning students, Rice said. “It seems like a systemic issue the [state Education] Department has not gotten their hands around.’’

Some education advocates say charter schools could be a lifeline for students with language barriers. Many charter schools, including several in Boston, have among the highest standardized test scores in the state and in particular have propelled black and low-income students to new heights.

The Boston charter schools gained state approval in February under a state law designed to offer better educational opportunities for disadvantaged students in districts with the lowest MCAS scores. It specifically calls for the new charter schools to be run by operators and other organizations that have demonstrated success in boosting the achievement of students, including those with language barriers.


In Massachusetts, where most students are taught in English regardless of their level of fluency, teachers must know how to convey information to students with a language barrier, such as using simple words and pictures and repeatedly checking to make sure students understand the information. Schools must also set aside time to teach students how to speak English.

The absence of this type of training and programs can discourage immigrant parents from enrolling their children in these schools and could also be a sign that charter schools intend to recruit few of these students education specialists say.

During the approval process, Rice’s organization repeatedly raised concerns that the charter school operators lacked the expertise and gave short shrift to English-language learners in their applications. His organization unsuccessfully lobbied the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to reject the proposals.

Rice said one Boston charter school was somewhat of an anomaly among the applicants. MATCH Charter School, a high-performing secondary school in Boston, acknowledged limited experience with these students, but it formed a partnership with a charter school in Lawrence that specializes in English-language learners and opened another charter school this fall in Boston specifically for these students.

Jon Clark - codirector of Edward Brooke Charter School in Roslindale, which opened a second school this fall in South Boston - said last night he was unaware of the US Education Department investigation.


He stressed, however, that his schools have been actively recruiting students lacking fluency in English, doing direct mailings in a variety of languages, such as Spanish and Haitian Creole. He also said the charter school is planning a third site in East Boston or Chelsea, specifically in an attempt to offer those communities better educational opportunities.

“We want to serve families all over the city, families that don’t have the option to send their kids to a high-quality school,’’ Clark said.

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