By JENNIFER MEDINA and ROBERT GEBELOFF | NY Times
June 14, 2010
When charter schools began opening in New York a decade ago, they were hailed as a better opportunity for children in poor neighborhoods, where failing schools had been the norm. But while charter schools are open to all, they have catered to one demographic group far less than another.
Although Hispanics are the largest ethnic group in New York City’s public schools, there are almost twice as many blacks among the 30,000 charter school students, an analysis by The New York Times shows.
The issue is a sticky one among charter school advocates, who say the most important aspect of any school is that it educates the students who attend. But officials at the city’s Education Department acknowledge that charter schools should better reflect the city and say that they are working to attract to the schools more immigrants, including those from Latin America. This year, for the first time, the city produced a directory of charter schools, translating it into eight languages.
“We’re talking about a group of schools that in the grand scheme of things are relatively new and are seeking to connect with students who are going to require extra efforts to reach,” said Michael Duffy, the head of the charter school office of the Education Department.
The makeup of the schools has also attracted attention from state legislators. A law enacted last month to increase the number of charter schools in the state required that the schools enroll more students who are still learning English, as well as more special education students, although it is unclear how those provisions will be monitored or enforced.
In many ways, the demographics reflect the history of charter school growth in the city. The schools, which are privately run but publicly financed, almost immediately gained major backing from powerful black politicians and clergy leaders. The first ones were concentrated in and around Harlem, not only because of its large concentration of struggling schools, but also because its proximity to the Upper East Side and the Upper West Side would make it easier to attract teachers, attention and affluent donors.
Latino leaders, meanwhile, embraced the schools more slowly, and few community organizations that catered to Hispanics rushed to create charter schools.
Today, blacks make up 30 percent of the enrollment in the school system, but 60 percent of the enrollment of charter schools. Hispanics, who account for 40 percent of the enrollment of public schools, represent only a third of the charter school population.
There are now nearly 100 charter schools in the five boroughs, including a number in predominantly Latino neighborhoods like Washington Heights, East Harlem and Sunset Park.
But even in those neighborhoods, the schools do not reflect the surrounding communities, the analysis by The Times shows.
Charter schools have proportionately fewer Hispanic students — as well as fewer students learning English, regardless of their ethnicity — than nearby schools, including schools that share the same building.
If charter schools matched the demographics of their neighboring district schools, there would be roughly 5,000 additional Hispanic students enrolled in them, according to the analysis, which used demographic data from the Education Department.
The principal of the Carl C. Icahn Charter Schools, Jeffrey Litt, said he and colleagues made efforts to recruit a student body that reflects the schools’ Bronx neighborhoods. But at Icahn Charter School 4 in the South Bronx, for example, slightly more than a third of the students are Hispanic, while a traditional public elementary school two blocks away is three-quarters Hispanic.
At Harlem Day Charter School on East 123rd Street, one-quarter of the students are Hispanic, compared with nearly three-quarters at Public School 96 three blocks south.
At Harlem Success Academy 4 on Lexington Avenue and 120th Street, one in five students is Hispanic, compared with two-thirds of the students in the traditional public school, Public School 241, that it shares a building with. The Times’s school-to-school comparison covered only elementary and middle schools, which make up the vast majority of charter schools in the city. Most high schools in the city are not zoned and draw students from far beyond their neighborhoods. (Excluding high schools, blacks make up 62 percent of the charter schools’ enrollment.)
Lillian Rodríguez López, the president of the Hispanic Federation, a network of social service organizations, has been supportive of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s changes in school governance, but she said the low enrollment of Latino students was a worrisome sign, particularly because the mayor and Chancellor Joel I. Klein praise the charter schools as beacons of success.
“When you create a system that isn’t going to absorb the same students for whatever reason, you are marginalizing them even further,” Ms. Rodríguez López said. “If you are saying that these schools present and offer these ideal learning environments, then you need to make sure that these students have the opportunity to access and go to them.”
Charter schools in the city have been criticized for not offering enough services for students still learning English, a shortcoming the new law aims to address. Only 5 percent of charter students are classified as English learners, compared with 15 percent of public school students over all.
Several charter school operators said these numbers were low because the schools tried to make their students fluent quickly, and when they succeeded, those students were no longer classified as still learning English.
But officials at the Education Department said they were concerned that not enough Hispanic parents felt comfortable applying to the schools or with the services the charter schools offer.
The Rev. Raymond Rivera, who helped create the Family Life Academy Charter School in the Bronx, which stands out among charter schools in that more than a third of its students are still learning English, said the schools “have to be able to prove to parents that they are going to teach their child English and at the same time not just force them into a classroom where they won’t understand anything.”
The vast majority of charter schools admit students based on a lottery, which can give preferences to students who live near the school and to groups of students the state identifies as “at risk.” Only this spring, the state agreed to classify students still learning English as at risk.
During a meeting with board members of charter schools this spring, Mr. Duffy, of the Education Department, encouraged them to reach out to local immigrant and Hispanic leaders and consider them for positions on their boards. “There’s been a lot of work done to connect with African-American churches and community groups,” he said. “There is a whole cadre of leaders who have really embraced charters — not all of them but many have — and I don’t see an analogous connection with the Hispanic community.”
In many charter schools, he added, the board has a far higher proportion of whites than the student body does, which could compound the problem of missing a particular slice of students.
Some speculate that Hispanic parents, particularly in middle-class families, are more likely to choose Roman Catholic schools as an alternative to traditional public schools. And many parents interviewed said they were skittish about sending their children to a school where they would be among only a few Latino students.
Each charter school has the responsibility to recruit students, and methods vary widely. But all the schools rely heavily on networks in playgrounds and churches. If parents are thrilled with a school, they are likely to tell their friends.
Of more than a dozen parents interviewed at a South Bronx public library one recent afternoon, only one had heard of the Icahn 4 charter school, just two blocks away.
“I don’t understand what charter schools are,” Celestina Barela said as her 6-year-old son, Yonatan, sat reading a book on astronomy. “I just went to the closest school to me. He seems happy — I ask him if he likes school and he tells me yes, so I like the school, too.”