Charter Schools: A New Hope for America's Latinos

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When school opened a few weeks ago, Mark Cruz, 18, started ninth grade for the second time. The first time was at the local public high school in north Philadelphia. "The door was always wide open, you could do anything you wanted to, there were always fires in the school," he says. He spent three years there, getting nowhere. "I was not learning in there." So he is starting over, this time at Nueva Esperanza Academy, a different sort of place.

Nueva Esperanza is a charter school that sprang from, and serves, Philadelphia's Latino community. Its neighborhood is a jumble of warehouses, tumbledown storefronts, and two-story walk-ups with barred windows. From the outside, the school still looks like the door factory that it recently was. Inside, it has been brightly rebuilt, the classrooms and office all opening off a single long corridor.

"All the other schools are messed up around here," Carlos, a 10th-grader, told me when I visited Nueva Esperanza. "They sell drugs in the hallway." Carlos lives with two parents, which makes him lucky hereabouts. Anibal, also at Nueva Esperanza, has a father who will be released from prison in November, after eight years. Anibal says of the big public high school nearby: "The only thing you learn there is to run from everybody else." Luis, another 10th-grader, has six siblings but has not seen his father for nine years. "I barely remember him."

The boys and girls of Nueva Esperanza wear uniforms. At lunchtime, the passing lines of students streaming in and out of the cafeteria are boisterous but orderly. Every parent gets six phone calls a month from teachers. The school has only ninth and 10th grades so far (an 11th grade will be added next year as the class of 2004 moves up, and a 12th grade the year after), and its sports and extracurricular programs are rudimentary. So why come here? "Everyone's not always starting something," says Emmanuel, a 10th-grader. His classmate Pierre adds, "People don't give you the awkward eye. They don't come at you here." Another 10th-grader, Lucy, says simply: "I like this school because it's clean."

If the National Council of La Raza has its way, Nueva Esperanza is the thin end of a long wedge. Without fanfare, NCLR—which describes itself as the country's "largest constituency-based national Hispanic organization"—is embarking on a $25 million project to open 50 new Latino charter schools over the next five years.

Behind this effort is Anthony J. Colón, of NCLR's Center for Community Educational Excellence. He is a shortish, 53-year-old man with bushy brown hair, a moustache, and a passion for education, which he regards as a civil right—one that is effectively denied to millions of Latino children. "They're not getting what they need from the public schools for a whole host of reasons," Colón told me recently when I visited him in his Washington office. "In education generally, there's nothing to address the needs of Latinos in a comprehensive way."

Colón was born in Brooklyn to Puerto Rican parents. He floundered in both public and Catholic schools and just made it to college, where he found his stride. He went on to earn two graduate degrees and a career in education—notably, 20 years in the dispiriting bureaucracy of the New York City public school system. Then he became principal of a destitute charter school in Oakland, Calif. Nearly all of the students were Mexican. Compared with New York, Colón says, "there was nothing." The cafeteria was a Mister Softee truck, the lunchroom a set of outdoor picnic tables; classrooms were second-hand portable bungalows. But when new utility lines needed to be installed, mothers and fathers and uncles and aunts brought picks and shovels and food, and they dug the trenches themselves rather than pay expensive contractors.

"I think that's what we're able to provide with the charter school," Colón told me. "A sense of mission. You _own_ it."

Obsessed as they are with black-white relations and with African-Americans' chronically lagging test scores, Americans tend to overlook another, browner problem. Nationally, almost 30 percent of Hispanic students drop out. That is more than twice the rate for blacks and almost four times the rate for whites. In some urban areas, Latino dropout rates are much higher than 30 percent. Danny Cortés, Nueva Esperanza's chief administrative officer and one of its founders, guesses the rate in Nueva Esperanza's neighborhood is 70 percent or more. "We were losing generations of dropouts," he told me, as we talked in a small conference room amid boxes of uniforms.

To the kids at Nueva Esperanza, the cause of these dismal dropout rates is as plain as a two-by-four between the eyes: The regular public schools are unsafe and chaotic. "They let you walk out," Pierre says. "They let you do anything you want." At Nueva Esperanza, says Cortés, "I want a private-school feel in a public institution. We want to create the traditions"—the "ethos and culture"—of a school with a mission.

A charter school is in fact a public school, but one established and run outside the control of the local board of education. By law, charters can't discriminate, but they can tailor their programs to serve local populations with special characteristics and interests, including ethnic ones. Today, the United States boasts more than 2,000 charters serving more than 500,000 students in 34 states. In a country of 91,000 public schools and 47 million elementary and high school students, that is a drop in the bucket; but it's an important drop if you happen to be a Latino parent who feels poorly served by the regular public schools, as many Latino parents do.

In New York City, for example, a recent poll found that more than half of Latinos characterized their local schools as "poor" or "not so good," and about 60 percent favored charters and their more-controversial cousins, vouchers. At the grassroots, Latinos have emerged as a driving force in the charter movement. In Arizona, according to Lisa Graham Keegan, who was the state's superintendent of public instruction until May, Latinos "are the reason we got the charter law, as far as community support and bipartisanship."

No surprise, then, that (according to Colón) about half of the 250 or so local Latino organizations affiliated with NCLR provide educational services. Many wanted to start charter schools and came to NCLR for help. Even before NCLR responded with its current push, there were more than two dozen Latino-based charter schools; Colón expects that the 50 to be seeded by NCLR will be just the beginning, not the end. "I don't think we're going to run out of kids," he says.

Though NCLR supports bilingual education, whether the schools teach in one language or two is up to them, Colón says. (Nueva Esperanza teaches only in English but requires everyone to take Spanish.) Either way, however, proficiency in English is a must; indeed, it is the point. "We want more Latino children graduating high school and going on to college," says Colón. "And I really want those kids to be competing with you for your job."

That is no small ambition. At Nueva Esperanza, where the student body is 90 percent Latino and 10 percent black, the average entering ninth-grader tests at the fifth- or sixth-grade level. Cortés opens one new student's test folder and points to a zero in math. "Those are the students I serve. They're four years behind and have to close the gap in four years."

So what's the plan? First, standards. At Nueva Esperanza, says Cortés, students are told, "If you want to pass a class, here are the things you'll need to do to pass the class." Second, ownership. Being a Latino community school confers an element of pride and purpose. "I don't want to be a ghetto," he says. "But we want the place to express who they are, culturally. We want that to be affirmed."

Liberals in the integrationist tradition will wonder, justifiably, if "schools of color" are such a great idea. The answer will depend on whether the schools work. When I asked Keegan about Arizona's experience with ethnic charters, she said, "I think it's a plus. I want whoever runs that school to believe those kids are capable of great achievement. And we can pretend all day long that we're expecting the same thing of all kids regardless of color or wealth, but it's a lie. You can have all the fiestas you want with all the balloons that say 'All kids can learn,' but that won't do it. It's about: Do you believe?"

Being only a year old, Nueva Esperanza is too new to produce revealing test scores. But here is another kind of score: Of the 182 ninth-graders who matriculated in 2000, 175 were back as 10th-graders when school opened last week. Plus there were 167 new ninth-graders, among them Mark Cruz. Starting high school all over again at age 18 seemed not to bother him. If not for this school, he said, "I'd be dropped out." Nueva Esperanza means New Hope.

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