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In Washington, D.C., a Welcome Idea for Immigrant Students Takes Hold

December 12, 2018
Georgetown University program unites charter, district school leaders to help the city’s growing English Learner population

Arturo Martinez was 11 years old when he moved to Washington, D.C. from Mexico City. His mother didn’t speak English, creating a language barrier that made it difficult to access basic services, like a public education.

Indeed, Arturo recalls the city’s school system struggling to support his needs as an immigrant student.

“My last name was incorrect on my elementary school diploma, but it was difficult to find someone who could help us fix it,” Arturo recalls.

“As a child, I could not understand how a school system in a city with hundreds of embassies and foreigners didn't have a central place where we could go and explain our case, in our language and get help.”

Arturo Martinez is day principal of The Next Step/Ex Proximo Paso Public Charter School in Washington, D.C.

Arturo’s childhood experience helped shape a career in education and advocacy for immigrant students, a “project for life” that inspired an ambitious new effort to expand services for English Learners in D.C. district and public charter schools.

Arturo, day principal at the Next Step/El Próximo Paso Public Charter School, and Elba Garcia, Executive Director of the Language Acquisition Division in D.C. Public Schools (DCPS), have proposed the creation of a citywide English Learner Welcome Center.

It would support the more than 2,000 linguistically and culturally diverse students entering schools in both sectors, providing a range of services including enrollment, translation, language testing to determine student needs, referrals for mandatory immunizations and basic orientation about the U.S. education system.

“I know what new families in the District of Columbia face when they come to a new system, facing people they don’t know and a different language and culture,” says Arturo. “We believe there needs to be a place to do that, a one-stop shop where students and families can come and get centralized services.”

A proposed citywide English Learner Welcome Center in Washington, D.C. would serve linguistically and culturally diverse students entering schools in both the public charter and district sectors.

The proposed welcome center would close a sizable gap in services available to district schools and those attending public charter schools. DCPS has its own Welcome Center for students in its 115 schools.

But no such center exists for families with students in the city’s roughly 120 public charter schools, meaning their English Learner students can receive an uneven set of services.

“There is an urgency around making this citywide,” says Elba, who oversees the DCPS English Learner Welcome Center.

“Right now we are able to provide this service to 114 schools. They all come to us. But each individual charter school may have a different process. We are not certain who gives the language assessment, if they are equipped for that, what kind of orientation the parents receive. Charters might not have access to a number of resources that we have accumulated.”

Elba Garcia is executive director of the Language Acquisition Division at District of Columbia Public Schools.

Arturo and Elba joined forces to address the problem as part of Georgetown University’s Executive Master's in Leadership program, which brings together senior education leaders from both the district and public charter sector to tackle common challenges. The Walton Family Foundation provides funding in partnership with the D.C. Public Education Fund and DCPS.

Roughly half of D.C. students attend districts schools, while the other half attend public charters. But even though they face many of the same challenges, they often do not collaborate.

“These leaders work together on projects that will make a difference across public schools and in the lives of students in Washington, D.C.,” says Robert Bies, academic director of the D.C. Public School Leaders EML program at Georgetown's McDonough School of Business.

Projects such as the English Learner Welcome Center proposal “demonstrate the value, importance, and impact of cross-sector collaboration between DCPS and Public Charter School leaders,” Robert says. “At the end of the day, it is about putting students first.”

A citywide English Learner Welcome Center could ensure D.C.'s district and public charter school sectors have access to the same information about a student’s English proficiency.

For Arturo and Elba, working together on a citywide welcome center for immigrant families was a natural opportunity for cross-sector collaboration. They believe it would create a more consistent and cost effective way to provide services to English learners.

For example, when immigrant students move from a district school to a charter school – or vice versa – their records don’t follow them. A centralized welcome center could ensure both sectors have access to the same information, for example, about a student’s English proficiency and requirement for specialized language instruction.

“We talk about the need to provide equity of access and efficiency,” Elba says.

“This would save thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands, because most schools wouldn't have to re-test students academic or English language proficiency upon enrolment to their schools,” Arturo says.

“Imagine one center able to welcome, test, and place students in their best environment, and able to collect all necessary biographical and other mandated requirements (for immigrant students to attend schools),” he adds. “That place, that welcome center could make all the difference at a fraction of the current cost that individual schools are spending.”

Arturo Martinez says Washington, D.C. need a "one-stop shop" to welcome English Learner students to the school system.

Indeed, the idea has already been embraced by the D.C. Mayor’s office. The city’s cross-sector collaboration task force recently recommended a citywide welcome center, based on the strength of Arturo and Elba’s Georgetown EML project.

“The Georgetown EML program has been an eye-opening experience and it has given me hope that the silos in which we have lived (in the public charter and district sectors) can become one giant force to change the educational services of our city,” Arturo says.

Elba says the Georgetown EML program provides an essential service of its own by breaking down barriers between sectors.

“There is a lot of misinformation and misperception about the charter world and the DCPS world,” she says.

“The EML program allows us to collaborate with charter leaders as allies in finding creative and innovative solutions to issues affecting both sectors.”

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