Impact Feature Issue on Educating K-12 English Language Learners with Disabilities

English Learners with Disabilities and Charter Schools:
The Principal Perspective


Peggy McLeod is an Educational Consultant with NCLR in Washington, DC. She may be reached at To learn more about the NCLR charter school initiative and the schools profiled here visit .

In 2002, the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), the largest national Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization in the U.S., established a network of 115 charter schools that serve majority Latino students and high percentages of English learners (ELs). These schools were established specifically to improve educational outcomes for Latino children and for ELs who were not successful in traditional public schools. As publicly-funded entities, the schools have an obligation to follow all federal civil rights legislation, including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

NCLR schools have been successful in serving ELs, as indicated by their average higher academic proficiency rates and higher graduation rates. To learn more about the challenges and successes of some of these schools in serving ELs with disabilities, principals of three high-performing high schools were interviewed: Ed Mendez of Alta Vista Public Charter School in Kansas City, Missouri; Ricardo Robles of Luz Guerrero Early College High School in Tucson, Arizona; and Carlos Rodriguez of Houston Gateway Academy in Houston, Texas.

As local educational agencies and, therefore, not part of traditional school districts, these three schools are responsible for all aspects of special education programming, from initial identification to the provision of appropriate services. The schools vary in the percentage of students with disabilities: 4% at Houston Gateway, 5.5% at Alta Vista, and 14% at Luz Guerrero. The schools tend to have students with mild to moderate disabilities, including learning disabilities and Autism Spectrum Disorders.

Among the challenges named by the principals in identifying ELs with disabilities is distinguishing the process of learning English language skills from the existence of a language-based disability. However, one of the principals indicated that this situation has improved in the last few years because assessment procedures have become more accurate. The special education team in one of the schools uses the student’s native language to assess if the student needs additional support outside EL services. Another principal believes charter schools have an edge over traditional public schools in identifying ELs with disabilities because their small size allows for recognition of indicators of a disability much earlier. All three principals reported they are in the process of developing a Response to Intervention framework that will lead to more accurate identification of ELs with disabilities.

All the principals stated that a lack of funds is the major issue in providing services to ELs with disabilities. For example, one school is able to employ only four special education staff, of which only one is a credentialed special education teacher. However, this shortage of special education staff has also led that school to integrate students with disabilities into regular education classrooms. One principal indicated his school’s biggest challenge has been getting teachers to implement the accommodations on students’ Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) throughout the instructional day, rather than just during assessments. This challenge has been met by having the school’s special education director provide professional development on accommodation and modifications.

The three principals were asked about success stories of ELs with disabilities in their schools. A common thread running through the stories was the willingness of all school staff to hold these students to the same high expectations as all other students, and to provide the extra support they needed to graduate from high school and continue with postsecondary education. One EL student wanted to drop out during her sophomore year because she struggled with a writing disability. However, after putting in place supports for writing in all of her classes, she is now in her senior year, will graduate on time, and will attend a community college. A student who is an EL with a disability at another school was far behind in completing the core high school credits. A senior, the school staff provided independent studies that allowed him to gain the necessary credits. That extra help, together with online courses, will allow him to graduate this year on time and enroll in community college next fall.

Finally, the lack of funds experienced by these charter schools due to their small size has also led them to use all their internal and external supports to serve ELs with disabilities. Internally, they approach the education of ELs with disabilities as a shared responsibility across all staff. Externally, they supplement what they offer by creating partnerships with outside organizations and programs. Thus the nimbleness from their small size allows them to “put everything in place for the kids” and gives them the needed flexibility to ensure that ELs with disabilities graduate ready for postsecondary education and careers.