Much of the conservative concern with immigration revolves around assimilation. How can we ensure that immigrant children are speaking our language and understanding our culture? Educating them in charter schools is an important part of the answer.
"Students who strengthen their first language have an easier time acquiring a second language," Atyani Howard, the chief academic officer at Camino Nuevo Charter Academy in Los Angeles, said Tuesday. "Over time, they outperform their monolingual peers." Howard was speaking at a Capitol Hill briefing hosted by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
Howard says the students at Camino Nuevo's English-only campus start off better than the students on their bilingual campuses, but the bilingual peers eventually outperform similar students who speak only English.
Charter schools are uniquely positioned for the task of assimilation given their flexibility relative to traditional public schools. "What the charter school model allows educators to do is adapt to what the families need," Rick Cruz, a member of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, told the Washington Examiner. "It gives us the opportunity to find different ways to make the Latino community part of the American community."
Cruz says the charter school community has been doing outreach to communities, especially African-American and Hispanic ones, to make sure families know they have choices. Many charter schools have specifically oriented themselves to serve those communities, while still being accepting of all students.
Nationally, 23 percent of charter schools have a majority Hispanic student population, compared to 15 percent of traditional public schools. In Washington, D.C., however, Hispanic students make up 12 percent of the student population in charter schools, five points fewer than in traditional public schools.
Just because students are taught in both Spanish and English doesn't mean they're missing out on important American history and civics lessons. "We recognize it's important for children to know the history and where the country is and how the country is formed," said Daniela Anello, who heads the D.C. Bilingual Public Charter School. "There is an element of knowing our history and knowing historically what nation we're in."
Charter schools can even play a role in assimilating adults by teaching them English. "We serve, at Briya, about 400 adults a year and all of them are learning English, and learning about this culture, and helping their children to learn English and the U.S. culture," said Christie McKay, the executive director of Briya Public Charter School in D.C.
Charter schools are publicly-funded and do not charge tuition. Compared to traditional public schools, charter schools have more independence in their operations and curricula, which is why so many families find charter schools desirable. They are open to all students, but they often don't have enough space to meet demand. They use a lottery system to determine admission.
"We want our children to acculturate but also share," Cristina Encinas, principal of Latin American Montessori Bilingual Public Charter School, said. "We all win. It's a win-win situation. I share my language with you, my culture with you, and then I'm going to learn your language and we share this culture ... Children acculturate, that's the easy part. If you travel the world, you know the American culture is so strong."
Jason Russell is a commentary writer for the Washington Examiner.