A charter school that hoped to focus on students who don’t speak English is changing tactics after being told by the state that it cannot give admissions preference to the students it wants to attract.

Though New York City’s charter schools admit relatively few English Language Learners in comparison to district schools, Inwood Academy for Leadership intended to be the exception. When Principal Christina Hykes applied for a charter, she envisioned a school where half the students were English Language Learners and half were general education students, making Inwood Academy the first charter school in the city to propose such a model.

Hykes planned to achieve this balance by giving admissions preference to ELL students living in Inwood, something Department of Education officials agreed she could do. State law encourages charters to focus on students “at risk of academic failure,” and students with little English seemed like prime candidates. They routinely have lower scores on the state tests than their English-speaking peers and are less likely to graduate high school.

But officials at the State Education Department disagreed with the city’s reading of the law, telling the DOE and Hykes that ELL students don’t fall in the “at risk” category. As a result, Inwood Academy’s application would have to lose all the language giving ELLs enrollment preference if it wanted to get a charter.

“Because a student is an ELL doesn’t necessarily mean they’re at risk. That’s their [SED's] interpretation,” said Michael Duffy, director of the city’s office of charter schools.

“What’s ironic is that it seems like at the Regents level there’s a real interest in seeing charter schools that can reach out to ELLs in the way Inwood was trying to do,” he said.

According to the state, ELL students are considered “high needs,” but not “at risk.” To bridge this distinction, the Board of Regents recommended last week that the state legislature raise the charter cap to encourage the growth of charter schools targeting “high needs” high school students,” said Tom Dunn, a spokesman for SED.

A change in law could offer hope to future charter operators looking to focus their attention on specific student groups like ELLs.

Charter schools won’t hold lotteries until April, leaving state officials time to change their interpretation of current law and the city time to lobby them, Duffy said.

In the meantime, Hykes has modified Inwood’s application enough to get it approved by the Board of Regents last week.

Inwood’s charter now says it will give admissions preference to students living in District 6 who get low scores — 1s and 2s — on the state math and English exams. Because of their low scores, the state does consider these students to be “at risk.”

“We’re being specific about how we recruit,” Hykes said. “We know where the need is. We’re going to have our meetings in the projects. What we’ll try to do is reach out to recent immigrants who came here in third or fourth grade. But there’s a chance we still won’t get 50 percent ELL.”

Without being able to give preference to ELL students, Hykes could land 110 fifth graders who have low test scores but are English-speakers.

“We would also like that language back in our application to show we’re devoted to these students,” Hykes said.

Traditional public schools don’t face the same admissions restrictions charter schools do. The high school Inwood Academy is using as a model, Gregorio Luperon High School in Washington Heights, only admits Spanish-speaking students who have lived in the U.S. for fewer than two years.

“There are criticisms out there about charters not enrolling enough ELL students, and I think those are valid criticisms,” Duffy said. “Here you have a school like Inwood that wants to go the extra distance and they’re being stymied and it doesn’t make sense.”