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Changing course, state says English learners are “at risk”

Bowing to pressure from both internal and outside groups, the state has abruptly reversed a policy that banned charter schools from giving admissions preference to students who are not fluent in English.

On December 23, two days after I wrote about the New York State Education Department’s policy, state education officials informed the city’s Department of Education about the change in plan. The new policy, which will allow charter schools that want to focus on English Language Learners to give them preference in their admission lotteries, will directly and immediately affect one school: Inwood Academy for Leadership.

Initially, Inwood Academy’s principal Christina Hykes applied for a charter that would set aside 50 percent of the school’s seats for ELL students, creating two separate lotteries. But state officials told Hykes that only students “at risk of academic failure” could be singled out and given admissions preference. ELL students were not among these, officials said.

“Given recent data showing that English Language Learners have the lowest graduation rates and lowest persistence rates in college of any NCLB accountability group, the Department is changing its practice to permit charter schools to designate ELLs as an ‘at risk’ category,” said SED spokesman Tom Dunn.

Hykes said members of the Board of Regents pushed for the change, as did State Education Commissioner David Steiner and Deputy Commissioner for P-12 Education John King.

Michael Duffy, director of the city’s office of charter schools, said he welcomed the change and that he’d heard the news from state official Ira Schwartz the day before students left for winter break.

“He said it was a Christmas present,” Duffy said.

The change in policy came after Inwood Academy’s application, stripped of any language giving preference to ELLs, was approved by the Board of Regents. Now, Hykes will have to reapply and have her new application considered in February.

If Inwood Academy’s new application is approved, the school will hold two lotteries in April. Students who have been designated as ELLs can apply in the first lottery and if fewer than 50 apply, the remaining seats will be given to students living in District 6. However, if more than 50 apply, those who don’t make the first cut can take their chances again in the second lottery. Though Hykes said she’s aiming for a 50/50 split, she could still end up with fewer or more ELL students, depending on how many apply.

“I think we’ll have a high number,” Hykes said. “I think the possibility in our community is there but it will have to be a lot of word of mouth among recent immigrants.”