How Do Charter Schools Support English Language Learners?

Three charter schools in metro Detroit excel at supporting English language learners. Learn how they build success for students and their families.

When Ebrahim Naji settled in Dearborn, he put his kids’ education first. Native to Yemen, the family arrived in metro Detroit a year ago. Naji’s Arabic-speaking daughters, now 18, 15 and 12, and son, 5, needed to learn English at school. 

“They picked up (the new language) easily, especially the younger ones,” Naji says. Because he prioritized education for his children, Naji enrolled them in Riverside Academy East and Riverside Academy West, two charter public schools for preschool-grade 5 (Riverside East) and grades 6-12 (Riverside West) in Dearborn. 

Thanks to strong support for English Language Learners (ELL) at Riverside Academies, Naji’s children continue to build strong English language skills while learning all the other subjects required by every student who attends a Michigan public school. 

‘They care about people’

When Naji’s cousin arrived in metro Detroit from Saudi Arabia and enrolled his daughter in a different school, she didn’t thrive. She even refused to return to the school. 

“I told my cousin to bring his daughter to Riverside because they will care about her as a new student with another language,” Naji says. “She started with Riverside Academy and now likes the USA and wants to continue. She loved it from the first day.”

Being involved in his kids’ educational experiences is important to Naji, so he attends coffee hours with the teachers and principals from Riverside Academy East and Riverside Academy West. “I went there and they talked to us, once in English and once in Arabic,” he says. “Some parents can’t understand English at all and (at the school) they do care about people.”

A newcomers orientation at Riverside Academy. Photo credit: Riverside Academy.

Whenever information comes home from Riverside Academy for parents to read, Naji says it is always in English and in Arabic so parents can read and understand what is being communicated in the way that works best for them.

At home, Naji enjoys hearing his children tell each other stories in English and he’s surprised by how well they speak English. “For hours and hours every day, they’re talking in English to each other,” he says. It’s a lot of growth from when the whole family would only speak Arabic at home — and Naji hopes these communication skills will lead to future success for his children.

“It opens all opportunities in this country for their future,” he says, adding that by being bilingual, his kids will be prepared to work in a global environment. “They have the opportunity to get a job anywhere in the world without difficulty.”

Charter schools support English language learners

Naji’s story may be familiar to many immigrant families who have settled in metro Detroit. Hamtramck, for instance, has long been a point of entry for newcomers, says Steve Paddock, Superintendent of Hanley International Academy, a charter public school in Hamtramck. 

“This started with a Polish community and transitioned to Eastern European, Bosnian, Albanian, Russian, and now our Arabic population,” he explains. “Ever since Hanley opened in 2005, we have always supported our community and worked to meet them and understand their barriers to close the achievement gap for their children.”

Students learn in their EL classrooms at Riverside Academy. Photo credit: Riverside Academy.

Because language can be a barrier to success, Hanley International Academy invests significant resources to support English Learners and English as a Second Language (ESL) learners, a goal made easier because of its flexibility as a charter school, says Nosaiba Alagbari, Lead EL Teacher at Hanley International Academy.

“One of the things I love about Hanley is we have enough EL staff to support our students,” she says. “This is different from a traditional public school.” Smaller student-to-teacher ratios mean students get more individualized attention. 

“We have seen a lot of newcomers to our school exit the EL program within three years and excel in the mainstream classroom,” Alagbari explains, adding that students usually remain in the EL program for an average of five to seven years.

Data-driven support and learning

EL instruction at Hanley is collaborative. Teachers assess each student’s strengths and areas of improvement and develop goals for each student in the areas of listening, speaking, reading and writing. The goals are revisited each quarter, says Alagbari. 

“We share progress reports with parents and explain where they are in each domain,” she says. If a parent’s own English skills are a barrier to helping their child at home, teachers provide hands-on and digital resources for students to use at home.

“We do a great job with that translation process for parents,” says Hanley International Academy Principal Jenna McGregor. “Many of our staff members speak both English and Arabic, so that’s really helpful. Online family portals are available in both languages, too, so we can include families in everything we do.”

Reflecting languages and cultures

A school with a high percentage of English Learner students offers plenty of potential cultural learning opportunities for every student, and the teachers at Hanley understand the importance of providing books that reflect cultures — and are of high interest to students. 

“We know if students can see themselves reflected in books, they are more likely to try harder to learn to read. These books are mirrors that reflect their culture,” Paddock says. 

“We make sure reading material is tangible,” says Alagbari. Recently, a student encountered a book in her classroom with a girl on the cover wearing a hijab, a type of head covering worn by many Muslim women and girls. “She said, ‘That girl looks like me.’”

Books that reflect cultures are “sliding doors that students can enter to learn about other cultures. Culturally relevant books also spark questions from other students,” she says. 

Meeting needs of parents, too

When parents feel comfortable speaking English, they’re more able to help their children with homework and connect with their teachers. Knowing that this need exists to some degree, educators at Hanley surveyed parents to gauge interest in a program just for them.

“Close to 50% were interested, so we are offering two levels based on their existing oral language and literacy skills,” says Alagbari. “We’ll teach them how to have conversations with teachers, what to say when they go to the store, answer the phone or if they are stopped in traffic.” This afterschool program for parents takes place while their kids are in school programs of their own.

“We know schools must reflect and serve the needs of their communities,” Paddock says. “In a bigger way, we’re helping to remove stigma and barriers for parents. If they don’t speak the language and want to know about their child’s achievement, they are already at a disadvantage. We want to get them in the building and remove the barriers.”

Advocating for EL

For public and charter schools, programming for EL students is expensive, but Hanley leverages its support systems — which are more flexible because it’s a charter school. Still, budgeting is a challenge, says Paddock.

“There should be fiscal dollars following that, and Michigan has a lot of work to do,” he says. “The EL space is something that is becoming new to Michigan and the legislative and fiscal support of these programs is lagging behind.”

Proud students share their love of books at Hanley International Academy. Photo credit: Hanley International Academy.

Paddock encourages parents to talk to legislators and state representatives. “The more they know the more they start to realize the importance of the issue,” he says. “We have always found that when we make decisions about kids, good things happen. Here at Hanley, we are good at putting kids at the forefront of our decisions.”

Riverside Academy East and Riverside Academy West, both in Dearborn, are charter schools authorized by Central Michigan University. Learn more at The Center for Charter Schools website.

Hanley International Academy in Hamtramck is a charter school authorized by Grand Valley State University. Learn more at the Grand Valley State University Charter Schools Office website.

Find more content like this at Metro Parent’s Guide to Michigan Charter Schools.

Claire Charlton
Claire Charlton
An enthusiastic storyteller, Claire Charlton focuses on delivering top client service as a content editor for Metro Parent. In her 20+ years of experience, she has written extensively on a variety of topics and is keen on new tech and podcast hosting. Claire has two grown kids and loves to read, run, camp, cycle and travel.


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