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Proposed Somerville charter school to focus on ESL

Posted by Matt Byrne  August 4, 2011 10:04 AM

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Drawing on the needs of a deeply multicultural student population, a proposal to bring a 425-seat charter school to Somerville will focus largely on teaching youngsters who grapple with learning English as a second language, according to documentation submitted to the state.

The Somerville Progressive Charter School would serve kindergartners through eighth grade, according to the 168-page prospectus.

The document is the first step toward winning approval from education officials, who will meet in February to decide the school's future. If all goes to plan, the school would start classes in the fall of next year.

The application follows a provision of a 2010 education reform law that would slowly raise the amount a school district can spend on charter schools from 9 percent to 12 percent in 2011, according to the State Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The increase applies only to districts in the lowest 10 percent of achievement on MCAS tests -- a group that includes Somerville.

"Demand for this type of education in our community far exceeds the number of seats that will ever be available at [Somerville Progressive Charter School]," wrote Selena Fitanides, who submitted the document for approval. "Over a hundred families have already expressed interest in applying to our school."

The proposal comes from the Somerville Group for Progressive Education, a group with ties to the International Charter School in Pawtucket, R.I., which has a similar focus on language skills in a community heavily populated by Spanish and Portuguese speakers.

The 30-member founding group is composed of educators and professionals in "every field relevant to establishing a progressive charter school," according to the prospectus. Among them, the fledgling institution counts architects, educators, school administrators, social workers, finance professionals, lawyers, developers, and others.

So far a location for the school has not been identified.

The curriculum will focus on language skills and the core subjects of science, technology, engineering, and math, according to the vision statement.

The portrait of the city's student population shows a specific need for such focus, the prospectus argues.

More than half of the city's public school students speak English as a second language, while almost a fifth -- 18 percent -- are classified as English language learners who require more intense language study.

The district's consistent performance in the lowest 10 percent on the statewide tests is attributed in large part to educating the immigrant population that struggles with language, the charter school wrote in its application.

"While there is a fine, 'no excuse' style charter school serving our city, Prospect Hill Academy, it has attracted very few [Limited English proficiency] students," the prospectus states. A little more than 4 percent of Prospect Hill students fall into that category, and "does not have special programs to address their unique needs."

"As a charter school, Somerville Progressive Charter School will have the autonomy to implement measures that have been shown to help English Language Learners suceed."

To achieve its goals, the school plans to implement for some students all-day English instruction, after school programs conducted in speakers' native languages of Haitian Creole, Portuguese, and Spanish, and a two-way immersion program that will see youngsters engaged in classroom work in both their native language and English.

Deeply ingrained in its early grades will be integrated English language arts programs. In grades 1 and 2, students will receive at least four hours of language training, through reading and writing, or language work folded into science and the arts.

Later grades will continue the language work, with students eventually choosing parts of their curriculum and participating in setting their own goals.

Along with curriculum-specific plans for the proposed school, the prospectus included a host of letters from nonprofit groups and others with an interest in the immigrant community in Somerville.

Tufts University has expressed interest and support for the school, saying it has potential as a sought-after environment for research, said Elissa Milto, director of design and engineering workshops at the center for engineering education and outreach.

Others to sign on support include Lesley University, and Haitian and Latino advocacy organizations, according to the document.

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